Theater for the People

Written by Valerie Gladstone on . Posted in Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit.

Inside the Public Theater’s new public works initiative 

Oskar Eustis of The Public Theater

Oskar Eustis of The Public Theater

The luncheon had been arranged to announce The Public Theater’s remarkable new initiative for community-based theater called Public Works, which is planned for the next two years. While the organization has always been true to its name, consistently instituting programs designed to bring theater into the lives of all New Yorkers, Public Works goes further than almost any other in its 59- year history. Its debut project amply proved its value, when only a few weeks later, in early September, a thrilling production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was performed three nights at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, with a cast of professional actors and 200 New Yorkers from community organizations.. “This was a love letter — to Shakespeare, certainly,” wrote New York Times critic, Claudia LaRocco, “but really to the city of New York.”

Inspired by a community theatrical production of “Caliban” at New York’s City College stadium in 1916, the musical play was conceived and directed by Public Works director Lear deBessonet, whose lauded production of Brecht’s “Good Person of Szechwan” is now playing at The Public Theater. The cast included members of five community partner organizations: the Children’s Aid Society in Manhattan, DreamYard in the Bronx, the Fortune Society in Queens, Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn, and Domestic Workers United, from all five boroughs. Among them were the elderly, domestic workers, people recently released from prison and taxi drivers.

DeBessonet was a natural for the project. Growing up in Louisiana, she loved Mardi Gras, and its mix of people, and learned more from church services than from formal theater. Assisted by  teaching artists, she started working at the community centers last year, initiating dance, singing, poetry and acting classes and readings. “Many of the people had never seen a play,” she says, “but there was a huge hunger to participate.” Sometimes that meant acting; other times, it meant learning stage carpentry. “It was deeply satisfying,” she says.

“I felt the whole experience was a gift,” says Christine Lewis from Domestic Workers United, which has 200,000 members. “We were like the Little Engine That Could. I’ve always written poetry but this was different. Plus, I got a chance to play a significant role. I was on cloud 9.” Robyne Walker Murphy at DreamYard echoes her reaction. “Middle school children were taught how to write sonnets. One 7th grader, Chimia Hawkins, won the opportunity to read her poem on stage at The Public Theater. People’s lives were transformed. ”

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