Brooklyn theater companies adjust to uncertain times during COVID-19 crisis

Samantha Johnson of WKUS (c) Alec Duffy (1)
Mutual aid organizer Samantha Johnson gets food ready for distribution at Jack.
Alec Duffy

Theater companies around the borough are adjusting to uncertain times as the spread of novel coronavirus puts all in-person performances on hold and forces some organizations to pivot to virtual performances. At the same time, others have assumed entirely new roles — even as the health crisis continues to ravage the industry.

“My whole adult life my profession has been theater and that whole profession has been shut down,” said Dick Zigun, a playwright and the unofficial Mayor of Coney Island.

At the onset of the crisis, Zigun had to cut short a months-in-the-works sci-fi rock opera about a brain-eating jukebox with the Coney Island-based thespian troupe Funhouse Philosophers, which was supposed to debut in March.

Coney Island USA, the nonprofit on Surf Avenue that was supposed to host the play, laid off Zigun, as well as three other workers — but that has not stopped him from keeping the artist community connected in the People’s Playground and beyond.

On April 12, he launched a weekly Sunday address as mayor, modeled after his City Hall counterpart Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, with updates on Coney’s arts scene, such as the fate of the famed Mermaid Parade, what’s happening with performances at the Circus Sideshow, and the recently-launched face mask design contest.

Dick Zigun gives his weekly address.YouTube

In an effort to support the organization until it can reopen, Coney Island USA also plans to launch pay-to-view streaming content later this week via Patreon, Zigun said.

Meanwhile, in Clinton Hill, directors of the experimental and activist theater Jack have decided to repurpose their Putnam Avenue space into a food distribution hub with the help of mutual aid group We Keep Us Safe Abolitionist Network.

“We saw that we had an empty space and we knew that we wanted to be of some service to relief efforts and we had this beautiful space that could be used,” said Alec Duffy, one of the directors of the company, which closed up shop in mid-March.

The mutual aid group has served about 100 families a week — mostly public housing residents — with groceries, prepackaged foods, and produce, and some artists Jack has worked with in the past have joined in on the effort, Duffy said.

“It’s a pretty tremendous and inspiring action that they’re taking right now,” he said.

Jack co-directors Jordana De La Cruz and Alec Duffy deliver food.Alec Duffy

The theater company also plans to transform itself into an online civic forum, with an upcoming town hall of candidates to replace longtime local state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery on May 11.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves also as a civic space, not just a performance space,” Duffy said.

Larger organizations such as Bric in Fort Greene have launched virtual series of artist interviews, musical performances, and dance parties. Bric’s programming includes variations of the in-person exhibits the performance center had to close, such as a talk with an artist from the group show “Death Becomes Her,” hosted in partnership with Green-Wood Cemetery.

But, online programing aside, the organization — like others across the borough — is still seeking support to keep its staff and performances in operation during the health crisis, according to its president. An online relief fund for Bric has already collected more than $133,000 as of April 28.

“One of our imperatives has been supporting artists, media makers, teaching artists, and our staff as a whole with this effort, as well as through the creation of Bric’s Creative Future Relief Fund,” said Bric president Kristina Newman-Scott in a statement.