They say the neon lights are bright in Fort Greene, thanks to the arrival of an acclaimed Off-Broadway theater company to the brownstone neighborhood.
The Irondale Ensemble Project has converted a disused wing of the historic Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, on South Oxford Street, that has not been used since before World War II into the company’s first permanent home in its 25-year existence.
When the curtain goes up for the first performance on Oct. 22, Irondale will officially join the growing BAM Cultural District, Brooklyn’s answer to Lincoln Center, which is transforming Fort Greene into the creative seat of the borough and adding hundreds of units of housing to blocks around the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“We’ve really got the potential to develop a neighborhood holistically and Irondale can be at the forefront of that,” said Irondale Executive Director Terry Greiss, whose theater is at the eastern edge of the district.
There’s plenty of action to the west as well — an expanded Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Theater for a New Audience, a new facility for Brooklyn Independent Television, an apartment building that will house the Manhattan-based Danspace Project and, if the money is ever raised, a glass-walled Rafael Vinoly–designed cultural center.
“We wanted something that was completely versatile and raw and changeable,” said Greiss. “This is the perfect space for us.”
His group’s domain is the upper floors of the massive church between Lafayette and Greene avenues, which was a hotbed of abolitionist fervor before the Civil War.
The company opted not to install a permanent stage or seating, so it can tailor the wide-open space for each production and stay up close and personal with the theatergoers.
“We’re not separate from the audience,” said Nolan Kennedy, a member of the ensemble, at an open house on Saturday.
Nor is the theater separate from the space’s religious history. Reminders of its past life are inescapable. Passages from the Bible remain on the walls, Tiffany stained-glass windows dot the perimeter of the balcony and frosted doors leading to what were once Sunday-school classrooms line theater’s bottom level.
Originally, the developers plotting the BAM Cultural District offered the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church’s space to celebrated choreographer Twyla Tharp and her troupe. She accepted the deal to much fanfare in 2001, but later bailed because the lease was too expensive.
Now, about seven years and $2.5 million in renovation later, the first show is set, a staging of “Peter Pan” that is said to be faithful to J.M. Barrie’s stormy, adult text and not the corrupted, sugarcoated Walt Disney version.
“Barrie said if the audience is not rooting for Hook at the end of the play, then you’ve done it incorrectly,” said Greiss.
Next up is “London Cries,” which is drawn from first-hand accounts of “prostitutes, sewer men, flower girls, criminals and con men” in Victorian England.
Aside from the performances, the Irondale also has an education component. Its members work with students in city schools and with the inmate population on Rikers Island.
The Irondale Ensemble Project is at 85 South Oxford St. (between Lafayette and Greene avenues). Visit www.irondale.org or call (718) 488-9233 for info.