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

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07 Dec 2013

Samantha Soule
Samantha Soule
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Public Theater takes free Shakespeare to prisons, homeless shelters, at-risk-youth centers, senior centers and rec centers as a part of their Mobile Shakespeare Unit.

Shakespeare's Benedict and Beatrice, encircled by 75 senior citizens, recently dipped and dived through their little love dance on a basketball court, three stories high at the St. John's Recreation Center in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Reviews from the elderly and the entertained started rolling in even before the eight actors (covering for a cast of 15) had struck the set, stored their costumes and piled it all in the minivan for the next day's Shakespeare somewhere in the five boroughs.

Aasha Abdill had "a great time" and was altogether "glad I took some time off from work for this." Edna Rembert, a regular at the center, learned of it from flyers on the bulletin board downstairs and wasn't about to let another merry band of players infiltrate her home turf without her being there. Mike Speights got his information from his wife and liked "the modern adaptation, because it made it more palatable."

Doris Davis, candidly, loved it all. "I've seen Much Ado About Nothing before, but this time it was up close and personal. I felt like I was a part of it. It was superb. Such a good group of actors! They belong on Broadway. I'd put 'em there if I had the bucks."

Save your money, Doris. Most of these actors have already had Broadway exposure; if not Broadway, then certainly Off-Broadway and television: Benedict, Michael Braun, had a good ride on the Tony-winning War Horse; his Beatrice, Samantha Soule, did Dinner at Eight on Broadway; the fatuously funny Dogberry, Lucas Caleb Rooney, got directed by Mike Nichols in The Country Girl.

For Soule, bringing Shakespeare to people who might never have been exposed to him before is not cultural missionary work. It rekindles the initial impulse to become an actor. "We got into doing plays as kids because it's make believe," she recalled. "It's 'Let's play a game. Let's play!' There's a sense that it's going to be different every day. Then, when you get into the professional world, into film and television, everything gets older and sort of cut-and-dry, and there's more distance from the play. Getting to do this, with everybody in a van again, makes you go back to the feeling that you're just making it up, that's it's play school again."

And you don't always score on a basketball court. "Sometimes it's cafeterias, sometimes dining halls," Braun noted. "Tomorrow we're going to Rikers. Every day it's a little different."

A circle of folding chairs three rows deep contained the imagination of actors and audiences alike, but within that restricted boundary was some fun. Soule has been known to crawl under the folding chairs of patrons, and Braun frequently weaves through the aisles, concealing his face with branches of tree leaves. On one occasion, he plopped himself down in an empty chair and began playing the scene to the stranger beside him, usually staring stoically ahead. "It's a blast," he admitted. "It's the first time I've been in a play where we really can't ignore the audience and think of our performances as something separate from the people that we're playing to."

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