It was the moment I realized I wasn’t in for a typical evening at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
Odysseus had just washed up ashore in Phaeacia, unaware that he’d arrived in the midst of a raucous celebration in his honor.
As the D.R.E.A.M. Ring, a Brooklyn-based street dance crew, undulated and contorted across the stage, a small child seated a few rows in front of me leapt up and shouted, “That’s daddy! My daddy’s there!”
As you might expect, an adult feebly tried to corral her, but her ebullience couldn’t be contained, as she beamed and pointed at her father onstage for the duration of the dance sequence.
More to the point, her giddy recognition was wholly appropriate at this show: the Public Theater’s/Public Works’ production of The Odyssey, a 200-person musical extravaganza, collaboratively created in conjunction with nonprofessional actors and community partner organizations from the entire expanse of New York City.
And as wave after wave of real people trod the boards, even the most cynical theatergoer began to realize that something different was occurring here.
There were the white-robed Bobby Lewis Ensemble Choir mounting a downstage scaffolding to voice the goddess Athena, bikers from Old Bones, N.Y.C. Fire Riders, the MLC Crew in full battle rattle portraying an occupying army, The Marching Cobras as the palace guard, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana II backing up Circe’s siren song, and TADA! Youth Theater’s kids playing mournful souls trapped in the underworld.
This was a radical take on inclusivity; the idea that the theater can and should still serve as a truly populist art form.
It did not mean we were dealing with propaganda, and The Odyssey doesn’t lack for entertainment value, particularly when it featured an adorable dog bounding across the stage.
But the larger goal here was to create a space where a community, both onstage and in the audience, could enter into a dialogue. If that meant a giddy kid or two might break the staid rules of theatrical decorum, so be it.
“One of my favorite moments of the show is when Odysseus is finally reunited with his son, Telemachus after twenty long years,” Andy Grotelueschen, the actor playing Cyclops, said via email.
“In a more conventional production, this reunion would pass as a plot point—a scene we've seen countless times before. But at the Delacorte each night the audience broke into applause.
"It was a moment where the audience spoke directly back to the play and to one another to say that this is important. This is a value. This is something we applaud."
It was hard to miss the contemporary resonance when the show’s lyricist/composer and narrator, Todd Almond framed Odysseus’ wanderings by asking the audience how they would treat an unknown, possibly frightening stranger arriving on their shores: “Would they welcome us? Kindly? If we wandered into their city, who would we meet?”
The Odyssey, like Public Works’ prior two productions, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, is bringing people into the theater that normally find themselves excluded from and alienated by standard-brand cultural events.
“It is stunning, stunningly more diverse,” Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater told me in a phone interview.
“What is clear is that, by every criteria, by race, by age, by economic status, and by borough, that the audiences for Public Works are more diverse than any audience that the Public Theater's ever had. And, dare I say, more diverse than any major cultural organization in New York. It's really astonishing.”
Eustis explained that while economic barriers do still keep diverse audiences away--last year, the average ticket price for a Broadway show exceeded $100--it’s not just the free tickets that are changing the dynamic.
“We have partner organizations that work with some of the poorest, least advantaged members of our society,” Eustis said. “But we don't go to them and tell them what we want to do. We go to them and ask them what they want.
"We try to form a relationship based from the very beginning in empowering the people that we're trying to connect with. What's happened has been completely surprising to me. The answers to "What do you want?’ are not at all what I would have predicted.
“That process has been more successful and more exciting than anything we've done since I've been here at the Public."
In particular, Eustis pointed to the year-round workshops Public Works hosts with partner organizations the Fortune Society, The Children's Aid Society, DreamYard, the Brownsville Senior Center, and Domestic Workers United.
“Domestic Workers United, to our great surprise, wanted a classical play reading group. So we meet every other Saturday here [at the Public Theater],” Eustis said. “What's been so fantastic about all this is one of the things we realized was that what these women wanted, more than anything was to have their minds taken seriously.”
For director Lear deBessonet, Public Works represents the culmination of a career spent trying to find ways to merge her twin passions for both art and social activism.
“Discovering this way of working was for me a revelation and a blessing,” deBessonet said. “And it felt like an answer to some really important questions I had about the role of art in participating in and building a better world, and healing some of the rifts that are so deep in our society: ‘What role can theater play in that? How can theater be useful in our lives?’
“Discovering that this way of working very much felt bigger than me. It felt like something that could happen anywhere with anyone. It could happen in any city. I don't know that there's a city in this country that doesn't need unity, that doesn't need an occasion to bring people together across whatever divides them.”
To that point, deBessonet and Eustis are in the process of exporting this model, setting up franchises in Detroit, Seattle, and Dallas in conjunction with Seattle Rep, the Dallas Theater Center, Southern Methodist University, and Mosaic, a children’s theater in Detroit.
What deBessonet and Public Works has created is an aspirational art form, to be sure. As she explained, there is a direct line between her unusual (in theatrical circles) Odysseus-like journey, one that began in an Evangelical upbringing.
One aspect of her faith that has directly carried over into her work in the theater is a serious investigation into “this idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the idea that there was a Kingdom of Heaven that had an order that was different than the order of this planet. And it was a place where the meek were strong and where beauty was found in everyone.”
DeBessonnet is thinking, she said, "about this world and what is holy in this world, and how justice can be found in this world. What if the Kingdom of Heaven is really here?"
The play is a concrete example, if on a decidedly small scale, of the hope that, as Eustis said (paraphrasing Jane Jacobs in his pre-show speech): “A city is a machine for turning strangers into neighbors”
More to the point, as deBessonet explained, it’s “the moment when all 200 of those people are on that stage together, people from all walks of life, of every age and every background, and every religion having fun together, having the time of their lives, creating this circumstance in which we can see each other.
“That people can actually find common reason to celebrate, for me, that's just everything."