By Joan Hornig
Last summer, I cut my Labor Day weekend short to return to the city to attend the final night of the Public Works performance of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. With a cast of 200 and a limited run of 3 performances, this play marked the close of the outdoor Public Theater season. I knew nothing about it ahead of time, but Jan Gura, my friend who works in development at The Public, invited me and promised it would be special. That was an understatement.
Like many New Yorkers, I am no stranger to joyous evenings of The Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park. But this Public Works Participatory Theater program underscores their commitment to being a theater of, by and for the people in a way that extends the meaning of Free Shakespeare in the Park beyond a performance created by world-class theater professionals. Participatory Theater done this way bodes well for the future of arts innovation. It illustrates how non-profits collaborating in creating extraordinary theater can extend the boundaries of engagement in the arts and add a fresh dose of creativity to storytelling.
THE POWER TO CHANGE
Now in its fifth season, Public Works brings diverse New Yorkers together from all five boroughs to create an unforgettable civic experience. This is one of the clearest examples of how theater has the power to change lives, tell stories and connect us to the current issues and challenges we face in our city and country.
Public Works is The Public’s initiative that enables New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds to become creators, artists, and performers, not just spectators. Working with partner non-profit organizations across the City, diverse communities attend workshops, classes, performances and actively create Participatory Theater thereby enabling them to discover, develop and showcase their talents.
I sat spellbound when watching community ensemble members, ballet dancers, hip-hop dancers, Mexican folk dancers, brass band players, bubble artists, taiko drummers, gospel singers, taxi drivers and professional Broadway and film actors interpret Shakespeare in a totally original and thoroughly spellbinding way.
The premise of Public Works is that theater breaks down the boundaries separating us from each other in daily life through the deliberate blurring of the line between professional artists and community members. It underscores that the arts are interracial, intercultural, intergenerational, and inspirational. The success of Public Works has been great enough to spawn offshoots in Dallas, Seattle, and Detroit.
SEEING THE CLASSICS
This summer, the luckiest among us will get to see a Public Works musical adaption by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery of As You Like It, the Shakespeare classic about chance encounters and self-discovery. Those on stage and in the audience will come to realize all things are possible here in NYC. Regardless of income, background, and age, opportunities to explore passions and talents are plentiful, largely owing to the generous public and private supporters in our city who open doors for others.
It happens because throughout the year The Public Theater and partner organizations offer acting, playwriting, clown training, dance, adult Shakespeare classes, play readings, discussions, singing, and poetry writing classes to a population not familiar with opportunities like Free Shakespeare in the Park.
The adaptation of As You Like It is created by and showcases talent found in our very own NYC non-profits.
•Dreamyard (Bronx) is an arts and social justice organization dedicated to working with Bronx youth, families, schools and communities to build pathways toward equity and opportunity, by providing transformative arts education through school-based and out-of-school programs (dreamyard.com).
•Domestic Workers United (All Boroughs) a city-wide organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers and elderly caregivers in New York who organize for power, respect and fair labor standards in the domestic industry (domesticworkersunited.org).
•The Children’s Aid Society (Manhattan) provides comprehensive support and critical services to children and their families in targeted high-needs New York City neighborhoods (childrensaidsociety.org).
•Fortune Society (Queens) is a social service and advocacy organization which supports successful reentry from prison to promote alternatives to incarceration (fortunesociety.org).
•Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn) is a branch of the New York City Parks Department with extensive resources for youth and seniors which provide a vibrant space to tap into artistic and athletic pursuits (nycgovparks.org).
•Military Resilience Project (All Boroughs) addresses and honors the unique experiences of our service men and women by engaging them in community -based events that allow them to become part of a shared narrative (milresilience.com).
•Casita Maria Center for the Arts and Education (Bronx) empowers young people ages 6 through college along with their families to experience a culture of learning through high-quality exposure to and opportunities in the arts (casitamaria.org).
•Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn) is a neighborhood–based social service organization encompassing comprehensive services in counseling, employment, education, the arts, and recreation with 8 locations servicing more than 16,000 children and adults each year (ccflsp.org).
The initiation of the Public Works Program and other community engagement endeavors developed by The Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, represents a great artistic leap forward for our broad and diverse NYC community. It is fitting that is was born at The Public. It follows in the tradition of celebrating how the arts bind us together by reaching deep into our entire community and recognizing what each aspect of our population contributes to our city.
Be among the thousands of people attending the Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park performances this summer where some of the greatest actors, set designers, directors, and musicians come together under the stars. And, if you want to spread the joy and guarantee yourself a seat, you can do so by supporting The Public and the Public Works program. To reserve your tickets through a charitable contribution to see As You Like It over the Labor Day Weekend as well as the other Free Shakespeare in the Park performances this summer go to publictheater.org.
The applause at Twelfth Night last year was so resounding as to demand an encore this year. I can’t think of a better way to finish off the summer than with a standing ovation for our fellow New Yorkers in the middle of Central Park.
Joan Hornig is a New York-based Jewelry Designer, Social Entrepreneur, and Philanthropist. She left a Wall Street career 15 years ago to create a jewelry line at Bergdorf Goodman, where 100 percent of her profit is donated to the charity of the purchaser’s choice.