The Public Theater Launches New Collaboration with Local Communities

The Public’s newest initiative radically rethinks a community-developed production and preps for a 200-person production in NYC this September.

Lear deBessonet – a director known for fable-inspired theatrical pageantries – is busily executing a 100-year-old scheme. It’s a populist charge subverting how New York City experiences theater. The idea isn’t new, but it is major. The concept is that anyone can and should make theater. It isn’t just for those who can afford expensive tickets. It isn’t for only a privileged few who attend prestigious acting conservatories. It is for everybody. And when everybody joins in, it can be radically transformational.

In 1957, a young Joseph Papp trekked around town, sharing Shakespeare with the citizens of New York City. His purpose was to bring The Bard’s work to the underprivileged and outer boroughs. Eventually – so the story goes – Mr. Papp’s traveling theater landed in Central Park near 81st Street on the Upper West Side and never left. It settled at the site now known as The Delacorte Theater, which evolved into the New York Shakespeare Festival and, ultimately, The Public Theater.

Decades later, in 2010, The Public began reaching back to its roots to embrace the city that nourished it in infancy. First, they reimagined Joseph Papp’s traveling troupe as The Public’s Mobile Unit, which presents Shakespeare for free to homeless shelters, prisons, senior centers, and other community venues throughout the city. Now, The Public is digging deeper into theater history for inspiration – all the way back to the turn of the 20th century.

Dovetailing with two of the Mobile Unit venues – Fortune Society in Queens and Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn – is The Public’s newest program, Public Works, a massive assembling of 200 participants from five community-based organizations from around the city to perform The Tempest on stage at The Delacorte Theater in September.

Ms. deBessonet wants to create a 360-degree experience. She aims for a program that is more than passively watching a play; Public Works is about viewing, making and talking about theater. It’s a sweeping attempt to blur the line between professional and amateur. And when the lines blur, people share their stories. Storytelling cultivates empathy. Empathy levels the playing field, and class distinctions begin to dissolve just a little bit.

“The Public, I think, is a very responsive place,” said Ms. deBessonet. “A need emerges, and they create a program. The hunger for something like this was there, and it met really beautifully with my own work.”

In 2011, Ms. deBessonet mounted a production of The Odyssey at The Old Globe in San Diego. Similar to Public Works, 200 people joined together from community partners all over the city. It was an enormous undertaking that redirected the trajectory of her career. After a series of conversations about the scope of her work, The Public and Ms. deBessonet joined forces to see how The Public might return to its mission and rediscover what it means.

Their directive shifted back to making theater accessible to all people, like a public library. Theater is a tricky nut to crack. Libraries have physical books. Museums have permanent collections. Theater, by design, is temporary. But when people make and talk about theater, it forms indelible impressions.

“Having a sort of safe space to really hear and see others,” said Ms. deBessonet, “that are coming to the world through very different experience and assumptions than yourself – that listening, that connection, and that awareness and that experience…it just re-arranges you.”

Public Works aims to transform its participants. Whether it is the actors in The Tempest, the actors’ families, the audience, the creative team or the administrators at The Public, breaking down barriers is at the forefront of this community driven artistic endeavor.

A dance class for seniors at the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn is
A dance class for seniors at the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn is part of the Public Works program. Image courtesy Lear deBessonet.

As with any new program, there are challenges. Many program participants do not have email. Daily life conflicts, like court dates, child-care, or purchasing Metrocards so participants can make it to rehearsal take extra time, energy and money. And that is okay by Ms. deBessonet. The hurdles she must overcome are nothing compared to the joy she receives when it all comes together. She suggests that the commodity in which she is paid is meaning, not money. When people have to overcome big obstacles just to get to rehearsal, they have a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“A term that is flying around the education world is ‘grit,’” said Ms. deBessonet. “It measures how you respond to adversity. A lot of people that are a part of Public Works have more grit than is imaginable. They are so ferocious about continuing to hope and continuing to push forward. I think that will show in the performance.”

Even though The Public is a large institution, Public Works manages on a modest budget. From the start, Ms. deBessonet’s directive has been sustainability and scalability. They are starting with little and growing gradually. For instance, in the Bronx, Public Works has mostly been working with Dreamyard’s school programs. But Dreamyard also has a community program in the neighborhood. There is potential to expand intergenerationally and find a way to have a child and her parent perform at The Delacorte together.

When we spoke, Ms. deBessonet was preparing to audition more than 200 people for roles in Shakespeare’s fantasy-filled island adventure. The auditions will give the composer, Todd Almond, an opportunity to meet the massive cast for which he’ll be writing, and Ms. deBessonet will choose several of the leads. While the central roles of Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano will be cast by professional actors, all the other roles, including Ferdinand and Miranda, are up for grabs.

Public Works impacts the community, and it adaptively pushes The Public Theater to create a more perfect theater of, by and for the people. While she is excited about the creative process, Ms. deBessonet realizes the program is much bigger than the content created or the performances presented.

“Even if we weren’t doing The Tempest,” said Ms. deBessonet, “and if all we were doing was literally coming together with all the people involved and dancing to a polka song, it would be a political act. I think people from incredibly disparate class backgrounds – not to mention race and religion and culture – but just different class backgrounds, sharing a space equally and having a good time… that, in itself, is a radical political act.”

The Public Works production of The Tempest will be presented at the Delacorte Theater in New York this September. Learn more about Public Works here.

James Carter is a dramatist, experience designer and producer. He was a founding member of terraNOVA Collective and its associate artistic director for eight years. Recent transmedia plays include FEEDER: A Love Story and NY_Hearts: LES. For more about James, read his blog where he explores the intersection of art and technology, or follow him on Twitter @jdcarter.