Back in February, news broke that the Brooklyn Lyceum was headed for foreclosure auction. The big and beloved space at 4th Avenue and Union Street– once a public bathhouse, now used to host craft fairs and markets, performances, and monthly roller skating events– seemed to be facing its certain end. Owner Eric Richmond, who converted the building in the 1990s to the cultural hub it is now, had different plans.
Today the Lyceum is still fighting the legal fight, but it looks like it may come out the victor. Coming up just this weekend, Nerd Nite Global Festival will bring three days of presentations from places like Popular Science and Radiolab, plus games, trivia, and lots of free beer. And with plans for a revamped Market, a co-working space, refocused theater programming, and a host of exciting art, music, and comedy events, the place is as alive as it ever was.
We caught up with Eric and asked a few questions about the Lyceum’s legal status, the involvement of the public, and what sort of exciting developments he’s got in the works.
Park Slope Stoop: Last we heard, the Brooklyn Lyceum was facing foreclosure and scheduled for auction. How did you get to this point, with a seemingly saved Lyceum and exciting renovations in the works?
Eric Richmond: The Lyceum is not completely out of the woods, but I’m optimistic that we’re on the right track. The Lyceum was, and is, faced with several legal decisions that seem to show a pattern of judicial abuse or at least an unacceptable refusal to follow the law by the judiciary. We’ve been vigorously defending ourselves and making progress, I hope, in court.
PSS: How has the community been engaged in the process of preserving the Lyceum? Are you receiving feedback and support?
ER: We made our legal bed and are trying to deal with the difficult part on our own. As that becomes resolved, we will engage the public on a deeper level. Those who’ve gotten to understand our legal issues have been supportive. Other than that, when they see activity, they ask us when the market will be back open. We say soon.
PSS: You’ve announced that the Lyceum Market will reopen on September 6. What sort of changes can we expect from its original incarnation?
ER: More of in-house baked goods and more coffee by the pound. Also, most notably, we will set up retail space for high quality foodstuffs to sample and sell as well as products that you might normally have only been able to get at our craft markets.
PSS: The Lyceum is a huge space, and right now the website is loaded with some ambitious uses for it– you mention the opportunity for an art gallery, beer garden, and theater collective just to name a few. Which of these are currently in the development process, and what’s their status?
ER: We have been talking for several months with various partners/investors/renters for the parts of the Lyceum itself and development partners for the adjacent lot; that has been under litigation for a long time. We hope for a resolution soon.
Eventually a good chunk of the Lyceum will be focused on art and the events will have to accommodate those things on the walls. We have also started the process to get a beer/wine license as the lack of that has always been a problem.
PSS: Most of these plans are based on cooperative use and investment. Why the decision to pursue such communal projects? Can you tell us more about these individual programs?
ER: They are open to a wide community but will not be run in a communal way. After much internal debate we realized that the Lyceum is at its best when it hosts a wide variety of activities at a fast and furious pace. The Lyceum is, and should be, the borough’s largest black box space and not a standard theater stage–although our stage is bigger than most Broadway stages. To that end we have refocused our programming and are doing less theater with intensive sets. While we previously aimed to create exciting programming that had a chance of extended/open runs, most groups don’t seek that, and Actor’s Equity Association still has no contract for outer-borough theaters of our size.
Going forward the Lyceum will continue with a wide mix of events, including comedy, music, dance, parties, children’s events, films, weddings, athletic events, bar mitzvahs, markets and small conventions and classes as well as food from our new micro-commercial kitchen. We are even creating a lineup of chefs to host intimate special dinners on occasion.
Add to that a giant co-work space we aim to open this fall. So activity at the Lyceum should be at or near an all time high, just with a more tightly managed procedure and a bit less theater.
The theater will most often fit the NYC Fringe model of easy setup and teardown which will weed out groups that have other needs. We wish those groups well but they are probably better off at some newer spaces. We will have dedicated personnel to help with the transitions between events and an in-house troupe or two to carry more of the load. More of the productions will be our own as we, more than anyone else, know the drill about the activities. Other groups that can fit the process will be welcomed.
Also, we are talking with a few other venues up and down the 4th Avenue corridor about a festival of theater, music, comedy, film and dance.
PSS: Which upcoming events are you most excited about?
ER: Roller skating, wrestling, SwampKing (10 minute play tournament) and the Improv Summit have all been at the Lyceum before but are becoming more of the permanent fabric. They signify the variety of activity that the Lyceum is known for. These and the oft thought about Wizard of Oz done to the original book, not the movie.
Photo credit Harris Spencer/Park Slope Stoop