Saturday was our last day in the Martinson rehearsal hall at the Public Theater, before moving The Odyssey to the Delacorte Stage in Central Park. And it was the first day that we all witnessed this massive endeavor truly take shape.
The Community Ensemble has been rehearsing for several weeks, along with professional actors Karen Olivo (Queen Penelope) and Brandon Victor Dixon (Odysseus himself) in the principal roles. And those rehearsals have been powerful. Wickedly efficient. Big. Many, many bodies moving in space, coming in and out of rigorous formations and spirited conversations. But on Saturday, we added the Cameo Groups. These are performance ensembles who make a special appearance in the production, showcasing their expertise, and giving a wider sense of this city’s breadth of talent and culture. I won’t give anything away, but will say that, beyond an incredible cast of actors, dancers and singers, this production will also feature a full youth symphony, a gospel choir, acrobatic breakdancers, a drum line, and a flock of the fiercest flamenco dancers in New York. Almost 100 people joined our cast on Saturday, and pulled a seat up to the table.
The run through was a triumph. The Public Theater staff joined us and many of us both wept and cheered, then left humming the songs. It felt like an incredible feat of artistry and vision, and certainly it was. But ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you, the most amazing show today happened behind the show. When I saw on the schedule that we were doing a “run through with Cameo Groups,” I thought, “Cool. We’re going to stop and start and I’ll get to really observe how they fold these scenes and acts together.” No, no. That was done in rehearsal weeks before, when each group came in for an afternoon, worked with Lear and the cast and figured out how to enter, what to do and where to move. No, there was no stopping in this run. Instead, we experienced a straight run of this epic story thanks to the almost undetectable expertise of the stage management team, which is truly the engine behind this beautiful machine.
Evangeline Whitlock has stage managed all of these Public Works productions. Her team this year (lead by ASMs Kristin and Nikki) had every seat in the rehearsal room labeled and each of the 200 people in the show accounted for. As we approached each number, they managed to cue, move and ready each group for their entrance without ever stirring the invited audience to turn around. They literally snuck a marching band on stage. This level of organization, management, and execution is indicative and key to how this enormous endeavor works. The pre-production process for each rehearsal, let alone the actual production, includes pages of seating charts, maps of stage traffic, and meticulously tracked contact sheets. As magnificent as the final production is certain to be, like any breathing, complex organism, there is a vast, delicate network humming under the surface to connect each component to the greater, extraordinary whole.
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 third post in that series.