Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Public Works and populist Shakespeare

A few weeks ago now, the Public Theater debuted its Public Works project, which aims to revive Joe Papp’s populism. Its mission lives up to the WPA-like handle: hundreds of New Yorkers, professional and amateur, from across the five boroughs, performed on the Delacorte stage for the inaugural production, The Tempest (which I reviewed last week). These people are members of local arts groups that contribute to the artistic life of their neighborhoods. Public Works, in turn, imports theater to those local communities—not, it seems, by parachuting in like a SWAT team of thespians (although it does have a “Mobile Shakespeare Unit”), but by actually collaborating with the local artists. The result, in the case of The Tempest, felt more civic, and not incidentally more electrifying, than the standard format of Shakespeare in the Park. Just as the production envisioned a new approach to Shakespearean production, the program presents a mode of civic arts that feels new.

It isn’t, of course. As a work of artistic populism, Lear deBesonnet, director of both The Tempest and of Public Works generally, was inspired by a 1916 theatrical event, Caliban by the Yellow Sands, which you can read here. As an artifact, the script is typical of that era’s experimental theater. It aims to invent a radical yet accessible new dramaturgy, but instead it gets caught up in symbolic abstractions (think of Konstantin & Nina’s play in The Seagull). In this case, Caliban deliberately echoes the scenarios for Jacobean masques, with their allegorical characters, communal pageantry, and mass participation. At the center of the spectacle, Caliban aims to better himself by learning his master’s magic. It’s easily read as a member of the underclass who elevates himself by his encounter with sublime art. With such intellectual content and poetical style, the 1916 show would seem to have missed its target. Yet it was spectacularly successful: over 1,500 performers entertained 20K viewers per night!

The Public Works’ Tempest didn’t come close to that level of attendance, but it did display a similar sense of pageantry and civic engagement. And as fun as The Tempest was on an aesthetic level, I’m more engaged by the artistic philosophy that links it to Caliban by the Yellow Sands. In New York, as public funding has been withdrawn, the arts have increasingly followed a patronage system. The stories onstage and the audiences in the house have mirrored this shift, coming to reflect the world of the corporate backers and corporate-derived private foundations. This collaboration, however, begins to redress that homogenization and elitism by crossing lines of class and race. In the language of both 1916 and 2013, its aims are progressive. The civic participation has populist underpinnings as well as aesthetic innovation, and works on a scale that befits its Gotham setting. It’s possible to imagine a future production that extends the model of The Tempest to invite creative participation from the audience.

As for The Tempest itself, Shakespeare’s play does have its political and racial themes, and although they didn’t form the production’s spine, they did supply some subtext. The show—in which non-white, non-privileged artists have been imported from the outer boroughs for a standard Manhattan audience—could have been iffy. But deBessonet turns that subtext on its side by casting the arts groups as the island’s spirits. The Calpulli Mexican Dancers; members of Domestic Workers United; the Middle Church Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir: these performers inhabit Shakespeare’s magical isle, whereas the Italianate courtiers and fools merely visit. The effect is to suggest the vast and diverse underclass of New Yorkers who live in this city, effectively unseen by the white, white-collar 1%. This facet was visible to those who looked, but it didn’t eclipse the show’s atmosphere of inclusiveness. I’ll look forward to more theater from the Public Works project, to see where deBessonet and company take these ideas.


photo credit: Joan Marcus

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