Two local performers are stepping out of the spotlight to create a brand-new stage for their fellow artists in Williamsburg after a difficult few years for arts and theater in the city.
Inspired by European arthouses and grand cafés, the Brooklyn Art Haus will be home to multiple rehearsal and performance spaces, a podcast recording studio, art gallery, and a lounge with bar and restaurant. Despite its European roots and wide-ranging services, the Haus’s founders are working to make sure the space is warm, welcoming, and affordable to artists and patrons alike.
Co-founders Alex Orthwein and Isaac Bush are longtime performers with years of acting, producing, and leadership under their belts. The pair met through a mutual friend and, inspired by the massive blow the pandemic had dealt to the local theater and arts community, decided to work together to create a new, stable home for the arts and artists.
Creating an affordable, accessible space to create and explore art
“I’ve been an independent practitioner for the last decade, which has meant that we always had to rent space,” Bush said. “When the pandemic happened and we lost so many small theaters and rehearsal studios, it became imperative that we preserve the artistic process, and we need to preserve the artistic output of people who are living and trying to create work in the city.”
Despite its thriving arts scene, Brooklyn was already lacking in small performance and rehearsal spaces before the pandemic — even in Manhattan, there were a relatively small number of affordable, accessible places for independent artists or small theater troupes to practice and put on their shows. As live performance has returned, many artists have found themselves without a place to create, Orthwein said.
“We’re crucially focused on equity and accessibility in this space for two significant groups,” Bush said. “One, the artists who need to create work and have affordable space to do so. And two, the public that is increasingly being more and more priced out because of inflation, because of gentrification in the neighborhood.”
In trying to serve those groups, Bush said they’re going to make the Haus a community space, where locals can hold events and artists can commission work and access theater and studio spaces without a prohibitively high price tag. They chose to open the space in Brooklyn because of the ongoing “cultural wave” happening in the borough, Bush said — the nabe is filled with exciting energy, new ideas, and innovation, and they’re excited to play into it.
“We’re surrounded by a community with a real sense of forward thinking,” Orthwein said. “People come to that area to experience culture, it’s a cultural hub.”
The Marcy Avenue space will peddle primarily in new and innovative work from all genres and in all forms. Bush and Orthwein see themselves more as part of a team than as gatekeepers dictating what can and can’t be put on at the Art Haus. What’s being performed or exhibited is flexible, too — they want artists and creators to actively be putting on work that’s responding to what’s going on in the world.
“Let’s say Sunday, we’re going to focus on films; Monday, we’re going to focus on comedy; Tuesday, variety; and Wednesday circus; and then Thursday through Sunday will be mostly longer runs by visiting companies,” Orthwein said.
“The reason we’ve set it up that way is so that multiple disciplines can exist in an overall response to the moment, so we’re able to easily adjust to the news of the day, the hot-button issues that are happening in our socio-political world,” Bush added. “Speaking personally, the Black Lives Matter movement has been such a huge wake-up call in my artistic career to figure out how the intersection of arts and social justice can be part of the dialogue. I’m excited as an individual art maker to have a space where both of those things can coexist.”
As they prep to open the Art Haus at the end of March, the team are actively taking submissions for artists who want to work at the space – the website welcomes entries for theater, visual art, dance, music, film, and “wild card.” The last category includes any number of things — spoken word and performance artists, circus performers, even poets or singer-songwriters are encouraged to submit their work.
They have a few local collaborators lined up to take their place in the lineup already — Madeline Hoak and Matthew Van Gessel, a pair of circus performers and curators, are gearing up to perform there. In the fall, they’ll host an exhibit in the gallery from production company Silvertuna Studios. In April, Mississippi-based artist Genesis Be will exhibit her work. One of their biggest events so far will be the Independent Theater Awards, which will be hosted at the Art Haus on April 17.
‘You’re going because you’re curious about what’s happening at the Brooklyn Art Haus’
Just as important as the work produced and performed at the Haus is the atmosphere for artists and locals alike. Bush and Orthwein picture it as a buzzing, vivacious space — one Bush described as “sexy,” but not intimidating or unfriendly. The accompanying restaurant and bar, Café des Artistes, will be open all day long from about 7am to midnight, so artists, patrons, and anyone else visiting the space can stop for a bite to eat or a drink — maybe coffee in the morning and a cocktail at night.
It’s modeled on the culture of theater bars in London, Orthwein said, which are bubbling with people discussing what they just saw, what they’re working on, and what’s going on in the community. Art and art-focused venues in the city can be intimidating, sterile, and unwelcoming, especially for newcomers — the co-founders want the Art Haus to be approachable and friendly, with an emphasis on hospitality.
“There’s a real emphasis on letting people melt into the space,” Orthwein said. “Our desire from the beginning has been that this is a space for communal gathering … you can be in our space, never see a show, and just enjoy being immersed in it. You don’t go just because you’re being dragged to see someone else’s show, you’re going because you’re curious about what’s happening at Brooklyn Art Haus.”