At the Public

Like jazz musicians, theatre people tend to live at night. So, it was especially touching to find so many great actors, directors, writers, and producers up and at ’em by 10 a.m. yesterday morning to celebrate and honor the completion of the Public Theatre’s forty million dollar revitalization program. Plans to give the 158 year old building on Lafayette Street, near Astor Place, a makeover began seven years ago, under the stewardship of the Public’s Executive Director, Oskar Eustis, and took three years to complete–a relatively rapid transformation given that, “We wouldn’t know what we’d find when we opened the walls,” Eustis said, laughing. Before the city leased the building to Joe Papp for one dollar, the Public had been, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city’s first public library, and then, a way station for Jewish immigrants. Taking occupancy in 1967, Papp and company put on “Hair,” and the rest followed: 1975’s “for colored girls…,” Meryl Streep and John Cazale in the 1976 production of “Measure for Measure,” and, the same year, Richard Foreman’s legendary direction of “The Threepenny Opera,” starring Raul Julia and Ellen Greene, 1980’s “Pirates of Penzance,” with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline, not to mention “A Chorus Line,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus,” directed by Richard Foreman, Rosie Perez in “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot,” and on and on. In a way, yesterday’s event was just part of the continuum. Walking up the black granite steps to the theatre’s airy new lobby, one’s eye traveled to what one hadn’t seen previously, as well as what hadn’t existed before. Central to the lobby is a site specific instillation by Ben Rubin called “Shakespeare Machine.” The geometric scultpure acts as a kind of chandelier, which features 37 LED display screens with fragments from Shakespeare’s plays. The building’s designers, Ennead Architects, had cleared away the plaster from the central space to reveal beautiful archways, and the always hard to find box office was centrally located. Large letters had been stenciled into the white walls, giving clearer directives to the first floor theatres, and the bathrooms–for years now, just a series of funky stalls–had been replaced to maximize privacy and contemplation, which was essential if you wanted to take a break from events like the hours long “Gatz.” But back to the event, which kicks off eight weeks of celebration. ( The vigorous Patrick Willingham, the Public’s Executive Director, introduced Mayor Bloomberg, who made a couple of puns using Shakespeare’s text, but not before Luis A. Ubinas, the fifty year old head of the Ford Foundation, told a touching story about how, as a kid growing up, he and a friend had stumbled into the lobby of the Public, where they met Joe Papp himself. The late producer talked to the boys for a while, and told them they could stick around–the place was his.
Thirty-five years later, Ubinas helped expand on Papp’s dream. Taking the stage after Bloomberg, and Eustis, who stressed how the American theatre could be, and should be, a democratic forum, one where people from all economic backgrounds could converge, were a number of stars and associates and family members connected to the Public, who, in addition to several public officials, read a line or two from Shakespeare, commemorating the theatre’s past and present and future. They included:

Gail Papp:
I have lived
To see inherited my very wishes,
And the buildings of my fancy
(Coriolanus II.I.132-134)

Richard Foreman:
You shall find a benefit in this change
(Antony and Cleopatra V.2.127-28)

Liev Schreiber:
Do you hear,
let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief
chronicles of the time. After your death you were better
have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.
(Hamlet II.2.486-9)

Kate Levin:
There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple;
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
Good things will strive to dwell in’t
(The Tempest I.2.457-9)

Jim Polshek, architect:
When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model;
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection.
(Henry IV 1.3.42-45)

David Rockwell:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
(Henry V 1.Prologue.1-2)

Diana Son:
The most peerless piece of earth, I think, that e’er the sun shone bright on.
(Winter’s Tale V.1.2939-2940)

Colman Domingo:
‘Tis a lucky day, boy, and we’ll do good deeds on’t.
(Winter’s Tale III.3.138-139)

Vanessa Redgrave:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
(As You Like It II.1.12-17)

Suzan Lori Parks:
Nice customs curtsy to great kings.
You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion:
We are the makers of manners.
(Henry V V.2.268-271)

My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore in faith twas strange, twas passing strange.
(Othello 1.3.158-60)

Amara Granderson, 16, and Amari Rose Leigh, 14, former participants in The Public’s A Midsummer Day’s Camp, a summer conservatory-style acting program developed for teens:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough
(The Tempest V.1.99-100)

Christine Quinn:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown,
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown
(All’s Well IV.4.41-42)

David Henry Hwang:
Let’s lack no discipline, make no delay,
For lords, tomorrow is a busy day.
(Richard III V.3.17-18)

Oskar Eustis:
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever thanks.
(Twelfth Night III.3.1503-1504

Indeed, the most tear inducing performances were those of Levin and others who work behind the scenes. Like kids who had put extra shine on their Sunday school or synagogue shoes, they climbed onto the temporary stage in the lobby with a degree of pride and accomplishment that emphasized the hope that seeped out of the walls. Following Eustis’ valedictory gratitude, several casts from “Hair,” who had been standing on a balcony looking down on the proceedings, sang “Let the Sun Shine,” with conviction and force. At the close of their set, one observed Redgrave, tall and bespectacled, bending forward just a little as she chatted amiably with Granderson and Leigh. It was actor talk: about the speeches they’d read, how they’d come off, the difficulties. And as the performers, encompassing so much past and so much future, compared notes, Lafayette Street continued to wake up to its various street players, who were just starting their day.