Beginnings and Endings and the Long Legacy of this Work :: Public Works Moves onto the Delacorte

It’s always strange and wonderful to stumble into Central Park in the middle of this pulsing city, and to suddenly shift tempos. Smell the grass, spot the birds and, as dusk falls, hear the cicadas overtake the traffic. It fills me with wonder every time.

Today we moved into this oasis, out of the rehearsal room and onto the Delacorte Stage. A stage that has cradled the giants of the American Theatre but is still somehow dwarfed by the sky and the Poplars that tower over its grid.

Leaving the rehearsal room is always a challenging act for me, filled with feelings and a sense of loss. It’s a goodbye – to a nest, a laboratory, a home. But as artists and as humans, this is what we do, yes? We leave home. We say grudging farewells and move forward. We create new homes as we go.

And the Delacorte is a good one. I’m starstruck, to be honest, by this space. Awed as Lear arranges dozens of performers in sharp angles and dynamic curves along the lip of the stage, arched like a smirk skimming the front row of the house. Almost two thousand people can sit in this theater – and spend a few hours with Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, or Meryl Streep, or in our case, the magnificent Ms. Jett, a community ensemble member who makes the trees tremble when she sings.

This weekend, people from all over New York will convene in this space, along with theatre artists from all over the country. People are hearing about this, this crazy impossible notion of making theatre of, by and for the people on the most epic scale.

One of the Public Theater's declarations, posted outside the Delacorte Theater. As you stroll through Central Park, you can hear the cast rehearsing as we tech through the big musical numbers.

One of the Public Theater’s declarations, posted outside the Delacorte Theater. As you stroll through Central Park, you can hear the cast rehearsing as we tech through the big musical numbers.

Of course, it is not a new idea. Brilliant ensembles and visionary artists have been working with this idea since the idea of theatre began. And Percy McKaye did it in New York City in 1916 with his 2,000-person cast of Caliban by the Yellow Sands that played to 20,000 people a night in a form he came to call “The Community Masque.” He rooted this project in his idea of “Civic Theatre”  as “the conscious awakening of the people to self-government in its leisure…” calling for the public to be involved directly in the collaboration, not just as spectators. This concept of community, collaboration and unified action has been explored deeply and through a variety of methods throughout the last century, of course by Cornerstone Theater Company, but also the Free Southern Theatre (now Junebug Productions), the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and el Teatro Campesino to name a few.

Good things are magnetic, they draw you in. This is true onstage, when you feel yourself lean forward in your chair. And this is true in life, when you find yourself showing up, stepping forward, coming back for more. This weekend, it will be true for the almost 8,000 people who feel Ms. Jett’s seductive belt wash over them and who watch the little kids from the Bronx’s Dreamyard show us their fancy footwork in the big finale. And it will be true for those of us who are drawn to the place where truly excellent craftsmanship meets that primal function of stories and theater – bringing people together into a collective experience, and making a new home together. Even just for one night.

***

This year NYC’s Public Theatre Public Works Program will bring a cast of over 200 community members, professional actors and cameo performers together on the Delacorte Stage in Central Park to present a spectacular pageant production of Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of THE ODYSSEY, conceived with and directed by Lear deBessonet. Last year’s cast of A WINTER’S TALE is pictured above.

I’ve spent the last year studying the Public Works program from afar, researching a myriad of methodologies about art and social justice and thinking deeply about how we might translate this tremendous experience for our community in Seattle. I’ve been invited to observe the rehearsal process at the Public this summer and to watch this enormous endeavor take shape over the the next few weeks. I’ll be taking copious notes, asking as many questions as possible and listening quietly. I’ll also be recording the experience in several installments here. This is the fourth post in that series.