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 first.
This morning I work up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, tangled in turquoise sheets under orange sunlight with a hard-working air conditioner fighting off the summer heat. Smiling.
Last night was the first Public Works rehearsal with the community ensemble of over 100 NYC citizens, and it was a joyful, inspiring time. The room was crowded with people of all ages, backgrounds, distinctive laughs and dialects that rang out through the rehearsal hall. We ate together. First. We ate together, broke bread and shook hands, while the little kids played tag and the older ladies leaned way back in their chairs. Folks threw their arms around each other and took pictures, and they welcomed me into the room like I was stepping into their home — Derek, Ella, Lex, Junior, Baby, P-Funk, a little girl named Jenny who play “Time” in THE WINTER’S TALE last year. Many of these folks are showing up to this room for the third year in a row, veterans of the rehearsal process and stewards of the good will at this program’s core. I had been a little nervous walking in, unsure of what I would find or how I could contribute. What I found was a big, hearty family and it seemed that the only way to really contribute was to sit down and eat.
There were some familiar faces in the room too. Two Cornish College graduates have found their way onto the Public Works team – Sarah E.R. Grosman has been the Public Works Artistic Associate and Assistant Director since the program’s inception three years ago and Eden Hana joined in March as this year’s intern. And, I have to admit, there is something in the atmosphere here that does feel like the Pacific Northwest — something about the tempo of the room, patient and playful, like we’ve stepped out of the bustle of New York and into someone’s birthday party at Golden Gardens. And something about the sense of social justice, the sense that art and collaboration are powerful tools for change and connection. That reminds me of home.
After dinner, the Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said a powerful hello, reminding the room that this is one of the most important projects they do all year — where we come together from across the city and craft an experience of hope, joy and music to gift to New York, a fleeting experience. One you must be present for to fully experience, and that comes and goes too quickly in one, short weekend. Then he introduced Lear deBessonet, the Director and mastermind behind Public Works, and then our rehearsal really began.
Lear spoke about the play and the process and the values that are at the heartbeat of this work. She didn’t only discuss WHAT we are doing, but WHY? Why make art? Why now? Why like this? Why spend our time together telling old stories when we live in a nation of increasingly divided communities? During a time of constant sorrow and misunderstanding? Why come together like this, with people who are so different from us, when all our instincts during this time of daily tragedies is to turn inward, to protect ourselves and the people closest to us? Because, she posited, JOY IS RADICAL. And art can serve many purposes during troubled times. Artists can illuminate parts of the world that are difficult to look at, yes. But she believes that artists have another mandate, and that is to propose the kind of world we could make. To use art and imagination to offer up a complete idea of how the world can be — through coming together, with joy, to face obstacles and triumph together.
She went on to talk specifically about THE ODYSSEY, that tells the story of Odysseus and how he has been away from his family for twenty years and has been fighting fantastical monsters, intoxicating seductions and cunning dangers in order to return home. This is a story about trying to get home, she said. And it is a “Hero’s Journey” by genre, and it is a core belief of Public Works that every person in the room is a hero, on their own great journey, facing impossible obstacles sometimes on a daily basis. This story belongs to all of us. And then she acknowledged each of the communities in the room, honoring the returning veterans and the new faces alike. She shouted out to each of the partner organizations – Children’s Aid Society (Manhattan); DreamYard Project (from the “Boogie Down” Bronx); Fortune Society (Queens); Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn); and Domestic Workers United (all boroughs, including Staten Island) — and the room erupted with joy and applause.
Until the stage crew began to clear tables and it was time to rise to our feet. These hundred people were divided into twelve groups, and each group was assigned a story point from THE ODYSSEY. They got fifteen minutes of conversation and rehearsal. Then, one by one, these groups of tiny kids and senior citizens, men and women, friends and strangers, stood up in front of us and sang. And danced. And embodies these epic characters. Scene by scene, they began to tell this great story.