Public Works: How 200 New Yorkers and 1 Stage Captured the Essence of a City

On a graceful September night capering between summer and fall, two hundred New Yorkers from every borough and stage of life scampered or twirled or pranced across Central Park’s Delacorte stage. They were performing William Shakespeare’s The Tempest — the culmination of a two-year project called Public Works. This community centric program was conceived by New York City’s Director of Public Works Lear deBessonet in concert with The Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis.

In a city characterized by cold, unfeeling capitalism and stereotyped as the unkindness capital of the United States, Public Works has engendered warmth and ovational support from the community it looks to vivify. By blowing out the free Shakespeare in the Park model to include literally hundreds of New Yorkers, deBessonet has produced the most accurate snapshot of the city’s bewildering diversity and beautiful specificity. The Tempest marked an incredible first public performance of Public Works, but the feat is merely a lens into the depth of the program as a whole. 

Public Works is an effort to involve the community of New York City in the theatrical experiences that The Public Theater produces on a daily basis. The program’s five partner organizations — namely, the Children’s Aid Society, the Fortune Society, DreamYard, Brownsville Recreation Center and Domestic Workers United — are all fascinating community groups in their own right. The Fortune Society, for example, meets recently released prisoners to help facilitate a successful reentry into regular society — meaning several of the participants in The Tempest were ex-convicts.

But far from moralizing, the purpose of Public Works is to develop close relationships with its partner organizations, discovering what is of particular interest to them and delivering that which is in the power of a large arts organization to dispense. DeBessonet is careful to emphasize that the concept behind Public Works is directly derivative of The Public Theater’s foundational message — that is, “a philosophy of inclusion” that the theater is not a cultural product dispensed to the highest bidder, but rather an entity that derives its power and meaning from an engaged audience. Before settling on the five aforementioned partners, deBessonet met with close to fifty organizations, looking for relationships that would organically make sense, and which had interests and needs that matched those of the Public Works mission. She leaned towards diversity of age and breadth of location — truly looking to produce a tasting menu of what the city’s residents culturally offer.

DeBessonet emphasizes how important it was to fulfill the aims of their partner organizations with Public Works, explaining that the project occupied a space “where there was a lot of yes.” When the Fortune Society expressed interest in careers in theater behind the scenes, Public Works pulled in the Public's production management staff to discuss various opportunities for electricians or painters who keep the theater running. And anyone who wished to be a part of the production could participate. Two young boys recited a poem they had learned for school after finding themselves in the middle of an audition to which their grandmother had brought them. They were front and center during the performance, and part of three generations of family members involved in the production. There is true value in a program that recognizes success in inclusivity, especially when attempting to portray the spirit of an entire city.

The Tempest was really a production that grew out of Public Works, rather than an endgame that the program looked to fill with able-bodied and interested New Yorkers. Still, it was an artistic and cultural success. “There is a stereotype against community-based theater,” deBessonet says, “that it might be well-intentioned, but that the work itself will not succeed as art.” The goal behind The Tempest was to honor Shakespearean language and history while also reconciling the work as a successful piece of independent and contemporary storytelling in line with the spirit of New York City. In this aim it succeeded.

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris the protagonist says, “You know, I sometimes think how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book or a painting or a symphony or a sculpture that can compete with a great city.” It may always be impossible for a single work of art to challenge the depth of a city like New York, but Public Works has demonstrated how close theater can come to capturing its essence.

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Anne-Louise Brittain

Development and Editorial Associate at Lapham's Quarterly, a not-for-profit history and ideas publication on topics ranging from Food to Family to Politics and everything in-between.

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