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 second.
Almost one hundred people are swiftly swarming the large rehearsal space. A recording of Todd Almond’s opening number WELCOME HOME plays over the rehearsal speakers. It looks like chaos – folks with canes and slower swaggers circled by tiny kids, men and women weaving in and out of one another in near-miss proximity – until a series of chords finally resolve and everyone lands, opens their arms and begins to sing. A giant sound. One hundred people singing about being on a journey, trying to return to where they came from. Their movement is big and energetic, earnest. Even the most somber or tough of the men open their mouths, and their hearts, and sing.
They’ve learned this entire number – song and dance – in under six hours and are already practicing toward perfection. Though even the folks who get a step behind seem part of the celebration, all of us together, learning and moving and putting ourselves out there. At the end of the sequence, all the onlookers erupt with applause. You can’t help it. Watching everyone move in synchronicity, beginning to embody this epic story, the feeling is overwhelming. I think it’s best described as joy.
Radical Joy was the proposal director Lear deBessonet set before us in the first rehearsal on a hot July evening. But today she expounds on that, “We are proposing a vision of a radically unified city, in both what we are creating and how we’re creating it.” In a time when the complexities of race, class and privilege are at the forefront of our minds and conversations, when it feels urgently necessary to talk about what is wrong with our societal systems, this work offers up a hope. A vision. A proposal that it is possible. For folks from far-reaching neighborhoods and vastly different cultures, from a spectrum of wonderful and harrowing experiences, to come together and create. With discipline and joy. Even if this rehearsal room is only a microcosm. And even if it contains its own flaws and contradictions at times, it feels like a radical example of what is possible among us.
Throughout my time as a theatre artist, I have struggle with how to access the power of this form. Theatre is clearly a vehicle for change, conversation, and transformation and I spent many of my younger days writing shows that were overtly political. Almost didactic. After awhile, I realized that they also needed to be really funny, but still…
This process has got me rethinking about all of this. Perhaps the power of theatre is most effectively accessed through the joy of making, of singing together, of sitting back and watching people move and act together towards a common goal. Of course, when they are masterfully told, our darkest stories can be so satisfying and impactful (Kate Whoriskey’s RUINED at Intiman or Reggie Jackson’s recent premiere EMBOLDENED come to mind), but maybe joy works too. Maybe sometimes it works better. Way better.
I feel like we are living in a time of urgent conversations, and many of these are related to our sense of home. Last weekend, I had the chance to hear John Criscitello speak about his “Woo Girls!” poster campaign at the annual Smoke Farm Symposium. He lambasted the corporate takeover of Capitol Hill and lamented the loss of this neighborhood as a haven for queer culture, artists and dissidents. The discussion got heated. Who does Seattle belong to? Who lays claim to our city? The assembled crowd wrestled these questions even as we railed against the corporate presence which has already planted firm roots on almost every corner of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. And, on a larger scale, I think of how last month’s Black Lives Matter disruption of a Bernie Sanders event in Seattle made national news and lodged Racial Equity squarely into the conversation about our upcoming presidential election. Our need to talk, to address these critical questions of equity, class, income divide, is crucial, even in these two small examples. Both of these events beg a similar question – How do we address the ways we are divided and how we might build towards a solution? Who does this city, and this country, belong to? Where is there space for rage? And, conversely, is there hope? I think I am drawn to Public Works because it adds art and joy to this dialogue, not as a replacement for the difficult conversations we must have, but as a platform for them. A small example of what we create when we are unified, landing our feet and turning out together, opening our mouths and our hearts and making a giant sound.