From Jazzercise to Jitney: The Deep Community Engagement of Public Works, Part of The Public Theater

by Howard Sherman
Public Works production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Public Works production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (Photo: Joan Marcus)
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In the past seven years, The Public Theater has offered New York – and engaged New York in – some of the most joyous theatrical undertakings around: the Public Works productions at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, exuberant shows mixing professional and amateur artists together for inventive, large-scale new adaptations of classic works. But these productions, which have expanded from three performances initially to two long weekends this past summer, are actually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the efforts of Public Works, the culmination of ongoing connections with participating community groups throughout the city.

The creative artists involved in the productions are a who’s who of top theatrical talent, including Todd Almond, Kwame-Kwei Armah and Shaina Taub. But the majority of the casts are largely non-professionals drawn from organizations across the city’s five boroughs, intermixed with a sprinkling of professional performers, including past participants Nikki M. James, Laura Benanti, Jelani Alladin, Norm Lewis, Krysta Rodriguez, and Rebecca Naomi Jones.

Chief among these artists is the founder of Public Works, Lear deBessonet. The director says the work is drawn from her own experience, when she didn’t see much professional theater, instead creating her own, inspired in part from movie musicals she watched. deBessonet says that the program emerged from the awareness that she needed to merge her theatrical creativity with her interest in social justice work. “It really needed to be a unified pursuit,” says deBessonet, “The making of the art could not be separated, for me, from the deep intent, in terms of who it was for and how it was building community.”

The seeds of this mixing of the professional and the amateur began with an adaptation by deBessonet of Don Quixote in Philadelphia (with a cast of 50), followed by a production of The Odyssey at The Old Globe in San Diego (with a cast of 200), which would later be staged in New York. Then she was approached by Maria Manuela Goyanes (now artistic director at Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth) and Oskar Eustis at The Public to ask whether the project would work in New York.

deBessonet recalls telling Eustis, “I think it could work anywhere in the world. But I think it would be really exciting for The Public Theater not just to do one of these productions or projects, but actually create a new department of your theater that commits to this work in an ongoing way beyond any one production and that really builds lasting relationships with community partners, and individual community members, across the course of their lives.”

After the first year of Public Works, deBessonet brought in Laurie Woolery, a veteran of Cornerstone Theatre Company and South Coast Repertory, to work with the program, ultimately becoming its director.

Woolery says that the program is deeply informed by the community groups who collaborate with The Public on the Delacorte productions, saying, “Figuring it out is really about what do they need, are we able to meet that?” Referring to Twelfth Night, which emerged from the brief Public Works run into a full production as part of the regular Shakespeare in the Park season in 2018 for almost a month-long run, Woolery says, “We vetted that through our communities, finding out is it possible for our communities to be able to do a six-night-a-week run of the play. We listened to our community about what they were able to do and not able to do and then built the structure around that.” She continues, “My responsibility of coming on board is building and deepening a program that can have a long life long after Lear and I leave.”
Public Works production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (Photo: Joan Marcus) The range of community groups over the years is exceptionally diverse, with such participants as the Jambalaya Brass Band, the Passaic High School Marching Band, Broadway Inspirational Voices,  the Military Resilience Project, The Liu He Zi Ran Men / Wushu Training Center, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, the New York Deaf Theatre, Domestic Workers Unites, Fortune Society, and many others. With some of those groups having been a part of the program from the beginning, and with deBessonet and Woolery noting that the stage capacity in Central Park tops out at 200, it’s inevitable to wonder whether those factors limit new outreach.

“We do have a core of both individuals and partner organizations that are deep, deep partners and friends,” says deBessonet. “We can’t keep making the show larger, much as I would personally enjoy that. So, we have to be thoughtful and listen in dialogue about how are we going to make space for new people.”

deBessonet  goes on to explain that, “Every time we work with a new group, we have to learn a new way of being, in terms of what kind of support is needed for this group to be able to participate, to really flourish in this kind of program? There are groups that we’ve really wanted to partner with. I’m thinking of a religious group that had a religious practice that involves women in the group not being out after sundown. Our shows happen at night in the park. That’s a specific example where we tried to have some conversations to figure out whether there would be any way around that. We still haven’t been able to crack that nut.”

The reason that the Delacorte productions are only the tip of the iceberg is because the staff of Public Works is involved with its community partners throughout the year, and not solely in preparation for the late summer show. Woolery recalls working with the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn, a relationship that began when the facility lost its jazzercise teacher. Starting from a comparable place of movement, the initial work was with a choreographer, but it moved into scene work and play study, including Shakespeare, Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks. “I would say we went from Jazzercise to Jitney,” says Woolery, “because the very first play we did with them outside of Shakespeare was Jitney.”

deBessonet says that for the professional actors who participate in the works, it involves a deeper embrace of the uncertainty that comes with live performance. “If you like chaos, have we got some for you,” she says with a laugh. “If you want to be on your toes, come join us.” On a more serious note, she observes, “My experience has been that for so many actors, they view their craft as deeply human, intended to be a gift to others and intended to forge a connection with others. I think there’s a lot about the structure of the industry that isolates actors from that intent. In a way, Public Works is a return to the purest intent of being a human being telling stories with a lot of other human beings. I think that’s very life-giving for them.”

The texts themselves are created specific to the scale and flexibility of the Public Works productions, and have included As You Like It and the Disney version of Hercules. deBessonet notes that they tend to be fables, rather than realism, describing the approach as, “collective imagining of a story, that involves wonder and metaphor, that is a free space people can enter really as equals.” Woolery notes that the development project has typically taken between nine and 18 months, with the artists creating the works involving themselves with the community, attending potluck meals and classes throughout the year. But there’s no formula, Woolery notes, saying, “We’re starting our eighth year, so in so many ways we’re still very young in terms of putting together an aesthetic and a methodology.”
2017 Public Works production of As You Like It (Photo: Joan Marcus) Because Public Works has expanded to partnerships at the Dallas Theater Center, at Seattle Rep, and at London’s National Theatre (where the program is known as Public Acts), the works created are to a degree open-ended, so they can be tailored to each community. At the same time, there are practical limitations, with deBessonet  explaining that due to the budget, the majority of performers can have only a single costume which must serve for all scenes, and with a finite number of body mics, there’s an elaborate choreography of microphone tradeoffs throughout a performance to insure those with speaking roles can be heard. Public Works also has developed a training cohort to help other theaters develop their own projects based upon the Public Works model.

Woolery makes clear that she doesn’t see Public Works as an outreach program, but rather, “It is about putting community central to an artistic practice. We often say, ‘Let community be the heart of the theater, and theater be the heart of the community. We’re really trying to make sure that mutuality exists, so nothing ever feels tokenized.”

deBessonet says, “The DNA of my soul is onstage in a Public Works show.” She compares the program to those that operated in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. She explains her philosophy according to that model, saying, “The way that the Federal Theatre Project was able to be in every state, in rural and urban areas, believing that theater deserved to be part of the lives of every single person who wanted it to be. That inspires me and drives me. Obviously, we’re living in a different moment. There’s no WPA right now that could fund something like that. But I want to be of service in allowing and helping as many people as possible touch and realize their artistic destiny.”
2019 Public Works production of Hercules (Photo: Joan Marcus)