You know that you’re truly a “Public Theater” when the general public is part of the show.
In recent years, the Public Theater has built upon its renowned Shakespeare in the Park tradition of free theater in Central Park with the Mobile Unit, which imports free Shakespeare productions to community venues across the city, and the Public Works program, which invites everyday New Yorkers to not just watch plays for free, but actually perform alongside professional actors on the Delacorte Theatre stage in massive musical pageants based on classical works.
Public Works began in 2013 with “The Tempest,” in which well-known Broadway actors including Norm Lewis and Laura Benanti were joined by members of community organizations from throughout the five boroughs, representing diverse ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.
The show was a hit, and it was subsequently followed by “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Odyssey.” The newest Public Works offering, based on Shakespeare’s masterful comedy “Twelfth Night,” will run at the Delacorte Theatre from Friday to Monday. Tickets are free and can be obtained either by waiting on line or by entering a digital lottery.
In an interview, Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is directing “Twelfth Night,” compared putting together the show (which has a cast of more than 200 people) to “a military exercise,” but he praised everyone’s commitment level.
“This is one of the most magnificent acts of generosity, not just from the Public Theater, but from those who are participating in it,” Kwei-Armah said. “It says that our stage is not just about those who went to a conservatory and owe student loans. It’s for everyone. Art is a part of who we are. We are equal. That’s a radical message for those who are watching it and performing it.”
In “Twelfth Night,” professionals including Nikki M. James (“The Book of Mormon”) and singer-songwriter Shaina Taub (who wrote the score) will be joined by members of community organizations such as the Brownsville Recreation Center, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education of the South Bronx, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, DreamYard Project, Fortune Society (formerly imprisoned individuals), Military Resilience Project (military veterans), Children’s Aid Society and Domestic Workers United (foreign caregivers and housekeepers).
It is set in a brightly colored, modern-day New Orleans. Whereas past Public Works productions were organized in a style where each community group would run on, make a cameo and then exit, Kwei-Armah has organized “Twelfth Night” so that the groups will be involved throughout the entire show. Some lead roles will also be played by community actors.
That being said, cameos will still be made by COBU (an all-female, Japanese dance and drumming group), Jambalaya Brass Band (which specializes in New Orleans roots music), The Love Show (a theatrical dance troupe), New York Deaf Theatre (which presents plays in sign language) and the Ziranmen Wushu Training Center (a martial arts school in Chinatown).
“It’s more than a celebration of what New York is. It’s a celebration of what humanity is, saying New York, the world, we are one,” Kwei-Armah said.