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What Does a Show Starring Everyday New Yorkers Look Like?

Date: Aug 16, 2018

How the Public Theater's Public Works initiative is creating new artists and new audiences


Usually a theatre producer's primary worry is how to get butts in the seats. But when the Public Theater launched its Public Works initiative in 2013, the big concern was how to get all those bodies onto the Delacorte stage -- 200 diverse New Yorkers from all five boroughs performing a musical version of The Tempest over Labor Day weekend. Save for a handful of professionals, the cast was made up of civilians, some of whom had never been in a theatre, let alone on stage. Conceived and directed by Public Works founder Lear deBessonet, it was a grand experiment inspired by the Public Theater's philosophy that the performing arts are for everyone.

Embraced by audiences, critics and the participants, Public Works became an annual tradition, with similar mountings of The Winter's Tale, The Odyssey, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, all presented for free at summer's unofficial end. But this year, at the urging of the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, Public Works took a tremendous leap, elongating its run from five nights to five weeks with a reworking of 2016's Twelfth Night featuring songs by Shaina Taub, two rotating community ensembles, and direction by Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah.

As exciting as this expansion was from an artistic point of view, the needs of the participants -- not the production -- took precedence. "My very first thought was, how do we make this sustainable for our community? Are they even interested in doing this?" recalls Laurie Woolery, the director of Public Works, which has partnerships with local nonprofits such as Brooklyn's Brownsville Recreation Center, the Children's Aid Society, Domestic Workers United, the Bronx's DreamYard Project and Queens' Military Resilience Foundation. Throughout the year, Public Works offers cultural experiences to the people these organizations serve, including tickets to shows, acting classes and the opportunity to audition for the summer production, which suddenly demanded a much larger commitment. It's a testament to the relationship Public Works has built with these organizations that they were all up for the challenge.

Twelfth Night, which wraps up on August 19, is a magical and moving experience that blurs the line between audience and artist. Before the show begins, theatregoers are invited on stage to literally play with the cast (hula hoops, jump ropes, oversize checkers and free popcorn are all available), and even once you settle into your seats, the fourth wall never really goes up, as cast members cavort up and down the aisles. With free tickets (some of which are distributed in the participants' outer borough neighborhoods), a cast that reflects the heterogeneity of NYC and songs that make Shakespeare's language accessible, Twelfth Night is radically inclusive theatre that inspires empathy and community.

This is the kind of work that Woolery has been creating throughout her career. The daughter of Latinx immigrants, she admits that growing up her family saw the arts as "something only the rich and entitled had the time for." Yet she became involved in theatre at California's South Coast Repertory, taking acting classes, seeing shows and ultimately teaching underserved kids through its educational programs. "It was this idea of equity and art for all, that everyone gets to be an artist," Woolery says. "Those seeds were planted for me there."

An eight-year stint as the associate artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, which makes new plays with and about communities, was the perfect training for Public Works, where Woolery is tasked with fostering collaboration among participants from disparate ethnic, economic and artistic backgrounds. "Everything is centered around: How do we create opportunity and access for folks who don't traditionally feel they are welcome in theatre spaces?" she explains. "The joy of the four years I've been with Public Works has been creating a structure and processes by which this work can be sustainable in large institutions. Theatres like Seattle Repertory, Dallas Theater Center and the National in London are now replicating what we do here."


Lori Brown-Niang, a community participant who became involved in Public Works through DreamYard, where she works as a teaching artist, says the program has changed her life. She and her teenage son have been involved in every Public Works production, and she's earning her Equity card for playing the pivotal role of saucy servant Maria in Twelfth Night. She says she never would have gotten this kind of opportunity going the traditional theatre industry route. "I'm a woman of a particular age and size -- when do you see my type of character having a love interest? And an interracial one at that?" Brown-Niang asks. "All kinds of people have all kinds of experiences, not just the quote-unquote beautiful people. That's what makes these shows accessible to everyone. We look like the melting pot of New York."

Unlike Brown-Niang, most participants aren't looking to go pro, and that's by design. "We're not interested in all of them becoming professionals; we want them to release that creative spirit," says Woolery. "The goal is for us to focus on trying to get people who have never been to the Delacorte before. When you're building plays with the community, the audience is going to come from there, too. They want to see their family and friends in the show, even if they've never seen a play before. Just like the participants, we want the audiences to reflect the rich diversity of New York City."

Both Woolery and Brown-Niang point to the participants from the Brownsville Recreation Center as a compelling example of how Public Works creates new artists and new audiences. "The older ladies from Brownsville -- I've watched them grow!" Brown-Niang says. "I've seen them get better and better."

That's a product of Public Works' ability to respond to the desires of its communities. "When we first started working with the ladies in Brownsville, they wanted a Jazzercise class," Woolery recalls. "They didn't quite understand this play we kept saying we were going to do. So the first two years of Public Works shows, they did dance numbers. But by the time the third year came around, they wanted to audition for roles. So we offered a class with Steel Magnolias and they did the play. Then they said, 'We want to learn Shakespeare,' so they did Midsummer. Then they said, 'We get it, but we want to do some of the masters from our own canon: Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson and Adrienne Kennedy.' Damn! From Jazzercise to Jitney, which is the Wilson play they did. And they were amazing. Then when Jitney was on Broadway, they bought tickets to see it, so now they are theatregoers, too."

Although Woolery anticipates that next year's Public Works production will return to one weekend "or maybe two," this summer's extended run proves that it's a scalable event. So who knows what the future holds? "Even though we realize it isn't attainable, we would love everybody in New York City to have participated in a Public Works show someday," Woolery says. "Coming together to tell a story collectively is transformative."


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Daniel Hall, Lori Brown-Niang, Shaina Taub and Shuler Hensley with the RED community ensemble in Public Works' Twelfth Night. Photos by Joan Marcus.

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