PlayCo’s production of The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise began performances this past weeknd at JACK in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. Alec Duffy, JACK’s co-founder and artistic director of the theatre company Hoi Polloi, spoke to us about his goal to make the arts more accessible to his community and how JACK has changed the way he makes theatre.
PlayCo: Your company, Hoi Polloi, has performed at various venues around the city. Why did you think it was important to have a permanent home?
Alec: For me as a theatre director and head of my own company, it’s been so nice to create pieces in the space where they’ll be performed. We rehearse and build at JACK, and are able to have sound and lights at first rehearsal. It’s changed what we’re able to do as a company.
PlayCo: How did you find JACK and what’s the history of the building?
Alec: I started JACK with small group of co-founders. We were looking around the neighborhood. We were looking for a building that was in a location convenient to a subway and column free (that’s a huge issue with found spaces that theatres often use) but was still big enough. We found this space, which is smaller than I imagined, but the proximity of a subway station one block away sold it to us. Our vision was to create a space that expands access to the arts, so we didn’t want a big warehouse space, no matter how cheap it would be, that was 10 blocks from a subway. I found this space through a broker who told me about this space for lease and I made a leap and negotiated a 7 year lease. It had been a lounge and club with a D.J. and they were vacating. For our first play in the space we used the bar from the club and then we removed the bar after our production, which made the space more neutral.
PlayCo: Beyond your own projects, what sorts of artistic programs did you have in mind when you decided to lease JACK?
Alec: I wasn’t sure. I think the identity of JACK has just developed over the last few years of programming. I had an itch to curate and put together a season, but I wasn’t sure who would be part of that season. Due to a confluence of contacts, it really has become a multi-disciplinary venue. We have primarily theatre, but also a robust music program as well as dance. I’m super inspired as an artist, to represent artists of other genres. Having my own venue focusing on experimental music I was exposed to all of these other experimental artists and realized one of the goals of JACK was to cross pollinate in terms of artists and audience. I think that other artists would say the same, that we all have our artistic ghettos that we live in and we just want to break down those barriers. We want to foster collaborations with artists of those genres and move into uncharted territory.
PlayCo: What’s been the response of your neighbors? How have you and your resident artists interacted with the local community?
Alec: It’s been great. Because one of our goals was to make the art accessible, we knew that outreach would be a huge, critical part of meeting the mission. Certainly that’s been one of the most exciting parts of running JACK – inviting my church choir, local business-owners, politicians and have them enjoy the work. It’s a beginning, just planting seeds and developing an audience for this experimental art, which includes people who don’t necessarily consider themselves culture seekers. I did it pretty carefully. For each production I think who of my new connections will enjoy this particular show. I’m learning the process of development and being very specific.
PlayCo: What’s been the value and challenges connected with running the space?
Alec: The value for me has been the opportunity to see artists come in to the space and for me to be blown away by them. People I may not have known. I subcontract some of the curation. I engage with artists and ask them to curate in order to get out of my own limited box. My great joy is to experience great artists that I’m not familiar with and have them blow me away, and know that we were able to proved them the opportunity to come together. Money and time are the challenges. We don’t have any paid staff. Any kind of help we get is all volunteer at this point. We can’t actually run the organization sanely. We really should have like a three-person staff to deal with the amount of activity and marketing and fundraising.
PlayCo: In addition to being a director, writer and performer, you’re now also a curator and venue landlord. How has your role with JACK shifted or expanded your perspective on how companies and artists create work in this city?
Alec: For me it’s been a very personal experience, running Hoi Polloi at JACK. It’s just so clear me now how much better work is when you don’t have to create it in a 20×20 rehearsal room with studio lighting and a boom box. We don’t really have other companies building in the space, it’s just that I have 24 hour access to the space. What I’ve learned is that there really needs to be a support mechanism in place for a start-up theatre company. We used money from our savings to start JACK but not a lot of people have that ability. A lot of the city and state arts funding you can’t access until you’ve been running for 3 years, but you can’t get there without the funding. I’d like to advocate for arts funding to be more of a risk, more like the model of investing in other kinds of starts-ups; to have state funding take more risk instead of donating so many resources to companies that are already well off. Their mission would be better served with taking some risks with start-ups that want to initiate projects and venues, and artists who are trying to create work in the space they’ll be using.
Also, I want to add that I went to Japan on my honeymoon, about 6 years ago, and Mimi, my wife, and I saw a video of Okada’s work. We thought “what is this crazy show”, but it was so inspiring to both of us. My wife is Mimi Lien, the set designer for this production, and Mimi’s now had a chance to work on three of Okada’s plays. He’s one of the leading international theatre artists and it’s just so great to be able to present his work at our venue.