Bringing The Bard to the Boroughs — The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit Performs Throughout the City

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07 Dec 2013

Michael Braun
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Audience reaction varies. "It depends on what gets said," Soule threw out. Braun ran with that: "Our experience so far has been different from audience to audience. It's part of what's really exciting. We don't know what we're walking into on any given day. Being in the round, being this close to everybody, feels great."

"I prefer it like that," Soule confessed. "There's something infinitely more accessible. Nobody's arriving to receive their 'cultural pill' for the year. We're a visitor in their living room so there's a communal ownership over what takes place. But it's really such a well-written play. You just sorta follow the words, and they'll take you there."

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit is how the Public Theater started, playing in parks in various boroughs until Joseph Papp found a home for his passion on Lafayette Street.

Three years ago, Oskar Eustis, the current artistic director, and Barry Edelstein, director of the Shakespeare initiative at the Public and now artistic chief at San Diego's Old Globe, decided to revive the community-touring tradition, playing to community centers and shelters and prisons instead of just open-air parks.

Michelle Hensley, who runs Ten Thousand Things in Minneapolis, led off with Measure for Measure, followed by Richard III, and now Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Baltimore Center.

"I think it's important work," said Stephanie Ybarra, the play's line producer. "What I love about it is the reciprocity of it all. We come into these people's homes, so to speak, bringing world-class Shakespeare to all the communities in New York City, which I think is a good thing and a good service to the community — but what also happens is that we, as artists and as an institution, learn that much more about the play and about the way audiences respond to the text today. I feel like all our artists walk away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the communities."

Of course, she added, the audience leaves with something, too — "like, last night, we were at the Park Avenue Armory Women's Shelter, and, after we packed up and as we were leaving, there were three women in the elevator just squealing at the top of their lungs, talking about how they were now going to do their own play. They had their cast all picked out. They were just so inspired by what we brought them."

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Michael Braun and Samantha Soule
Photo by Carol Rosegg

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