There are many reasons to enthuse about The Public Theater's inaugural "Public Works" production of The Tempest - the conception and direction of Lear de Bessonet, the original score by Todd Almond, the perfect weather that blessed each of the three evenings it was on, the enthusiastic performances centered by the Prospero of Norm Lewis. But the greatest achievement was the participation and wrangling of some 200 non-professional performers, rallied in service of a musicalized and summarized version of Shakespeare's play.
Billed at times as a "community Tempest," the production utilized, according to a program insert, "106 community ensemble members, 31 gospel choir singers, 1 ASL interpreter, 24 ballet dancers, three taxi drivers, 12 Mexican tap dancers, one bubble artist (who I must have missed), 10 hip hop dancers, five Equity actors (though there were six by my count), six taiko drummers, one guest star appearance (again, I must have missed that, or simply not known the performer), and five brass band players." It was an undertaking of remarkable scale that put me in mind of the deeply moving finale of the New York Philharmonic's 80th birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim, when the stage and aisles of Avery Fisher Hall were filled with the bodies and voices of singers uniting for "Sunday," except that in this case, the large company was present throughout the show and the music was raucous and exuberant.
The preceding litany of performers accurately suggests that this Tempest was, like Prospero's isle, full of noises and a wide variety of styles, an at-times almost vaudeville approach to the reworked text, with a wide variety of acts sharing the same stage (I remember the Mexican tappers vividly, though I have already forgotten the pretext under which they were included). But that's befitting a production which endeavored to engage the New York community not simply by inviting them to watch the production for free, but to participate in it as well. It was also a fitting artistic complement to The Public's immediately preceding production at the Delacorte, a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost.
To be sure, this wasn't the result of a some lunatic open call. De Bessonet and her team established relationships with specific community groups and performing ensembles and presumably they each rehearsed their segments discretely until the final days when they were assembled en masse. The program for the evening even suggests that in some cases, existing work was incorporated into The Tempest, rather than groups necessarily learning specific material. Sometimes the fragmentary nature was rather obvious (what were those cabbies doing there anyway), but at other times seamless, such as the sequence when a corps of pre-teen ballet dancers wordlessly tormented Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban.
This manner of artistic engagement with the community isn't new; the production itself was modeled on a 1915 musicalized Tempest in Harlem with a cast of 2,000. More recently, companies like Cornerstone have gone into specific communities with a handful of professionals to foster the creation of works featuring local non-professionals and there's probably many a Music Man production which has fielded 76 trombones and more from local schools. But in Manhattan, where community based performance can be overwhelmed in the public consciousness by the sheer volume of professional arts performances, this Tempest was a reminder that a very special and joyous entertainment can emerge from the efforts of those who may not be, nor even desire to be, professional artists.
Clearly this effort was guided by expert professionals and I suspect that its budget far exceeded that of many professional productions seen in New York or around the country. Costuming alone for 200 performers takes some doing, even when many of the clothes may have been borrowed from some of the country's top regional theatres. Just opening the Delacorte Theatre for rehearsals and performances has real cost. The level of corporate and foundation support behind this Public Works production means this isn't likely to result in a profusion of comparable efforts.
That said, the driving concept behind it is worthy of exploration by other groups in other cities and by other coalitions in New York as well. At a time when engagement is both a goal and a buzzword, this Tempest is a high-profile flagship that will hopefully inspire others means of mixing professionals and amateurs, that will prompt more artists to create works that encompass their community, that will even mix up audiences so that the cognoscenti sit alongside proud parents. The production once again affirmed that community theatre is not only valuable but essential, an asset to pro companies rather than a pale imitation of them.
It was also a reminder of the power of collaboration, of the intermingling of different artistic pursuits and organizations to create a blended whole. At a time when the arts are often seen as frivolous or disposable, there is enormous strength in variety and in numbers, sending a message about the essential and broad-based value of creativity and performance at every level of society and life. After all, no one arts group is a magically protected island - they are all part of a vast archipelago, threatened by rising tides that would seek to swamp them.
Photo of "The Tempest" by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Public Theater