The Public Theater's Mobile Unit has kicked off its sit-down run at the Shiva Theater, having played the final stop in its free tour of Hamlet to New York City's prisons, homeless shelters, and community centers on September 17. The upcoming three weeks of localized performances provide Public's theatergoers with an opportunity to participate in an experience that the ensemble has been sharing with audiences across New York.
Directed by Patricia McGregor (Ugly Lies the Bone), the Mobile Unit's Hamlet aims to engage diverse communities with the arts. Below, the cast and crew share their most memorable moments from a tour that included hard-core autograph collectors, first-time playgoers, and revenge-thirsty audiences.
Chukwudi Iwuji (Hamlet)
"At the end of our performance at the MDC Brooklyn prison for women: There was a lady who went around meticulously collecting the autographs of every performer. I signed in my allocated spot — the final piece of the puzzle. She took a long, quiet look at all the names, then pressed the program to her chest, smiled, and said, "Thank you." As she turned and walked out that door, it dawned on me that this grateful, warm, enthusiastic woman was taking this program back to an audience of one — herself. I can only guess what that signed program means to her; a memory of the show, and the messages it contained; a reminder that she mattered beyond the four walls of her cell; one of the few highlights in an otherwise predictably monotonous schedule."
Kristolyn Lloyd (Ophelia)
"I'm so moved by the audience's response to the shows every time. The women's correctional facility in Bedford was such an incredible testimony of humanity. They fell so hard for the show and hearing their words of encouragement and personal experience was such a treat."
Orlagh Cassidy (Gertrude)
"To perform in these mobile venues is not always easy, but my favorite moments have been when I am offstage watching the inmates or community members watching the show, absolutely quiet and engaged and hanging on every word. For many, it is their first time hearing and seeing Shakespeare and you see lightbulbs flashing inside them as they relate and understand it and it moves them, sometimes to their own amazement. My favorite audience response was when a woman at the women's shelter on 67th Street, deeply engaged at the end of the play, when Hamlet dies (spoiler alert), and she exclaimed "Help Him, Horatio! Help Him!"
Jeffrey Omura (Horatio)
"One of the first stops on our tour was for a small group at the Park Avenue Armory Women's Shelter. Most of the women told us they had never seen Shakespeare performed live nor had any familiarity with Hamlet, so we had no idea what kind of audience they would be. As the show began, we quickly realized they were listening to and hanging on every word. One lady correctly finished Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' line with 'that is the question' in perfect rhythm before he had a chance to get the words out. Another called for Hamlet to 'whack' Claudius, and then they all loudly cheered the king's death when Hamlet finally got his revenge."
Natalie Woolams-Torres (Rosencrantz)
"After one of our prison performances, a young inmate came up to me, with a legal pad completely filled with writing, and said, 'Hey, I'm writing the next Harry Potter book, it's going to be huge, and watching the play today made me decide to not kill off one of my major characters.'"
Timothy D. Stickney (Claudius/Ghost)
"While the cozy size of our staging allows us to hear most everything the audience says to each other and us during the show, my favorite thing has to be the faces of the crowd. A million thoughts flow across their faces as they get swept up into the situation. Some of the moments grow and hang suspended in time as they wait breathlessly for the next piece of information or in disbelief as the players drop a beat-boxed verse. They get it, they feel it, they enjoy it, and they genuinely seem to want more of it."
Daniel Pearce (Polonius/Gravedigger)
"My favorite moment is every time Chuk Iwuji does the 'will you play on this pipe?' speech. He kills me. Every time."
Christian DeMarais (Laertes)
"A director once told me there is a certain responsibility that comes with doing theater because every time you step onstage, someone in the audience will be seeing a play for the first time in their life and someone will be seeing a play for the last time. I've always tried to remember that. After this performance on the rooftop basketball court at MCC (Manhattan Correctional Center) a man came up to me and we began talking. He told me it was the first play he had ever seen. Not his first Shakespeare play, first play. Now, I had sort of carried that torch/responsibility all these years in theory, but it really hit me when I could actually see in this man's eyes the gratitude he felt for being able to have this experience, regardless of location."
Christopher Ryan Grant (Player King)
"We've played in hangars, gyms, rooftops, TV rooms, and prison chapels. We've battled construction, roaring airplanes, heat, space, attention spans, and collectively we've conquered them all. I can only imagine that this is as close as we can get to the experience of Shakespeare's company and their audiences in the modern era."
Patricia McGregor (Director)
"My favorite moment of the Hamlet tour was post-show on the second stop at the Al Oerter Recreation Center in Queens. This was the first time we had a chance to read the audience feedback forms. The responses, from community members ranging from the age of 8 to the age of 84, were so meaningful. They spoke of moments in the play that related to parts of their lives and things the production made them think about in terms of personal choices and the politics of the world. Many of the older audience members thanked us for coming, reminiscing about days gone by when they had more access to arts, now out of reach because of program cuts. Several younger audience members spoke of how they were inspired by the piece to go into the arts or to make the world better."
Stephanie Ybarra (The Public's director of Special Artistic Projects)
"We were at Rikers performing for a group of women and youth who were required to see the show (all of our other audiences are there by choice), and these ladies weren't exactly happy to be in a hot gym on a ninety-degree day. At one point before the show, I looked over to see that every one of our actors was talking to our audience; shaking their hands, smiling, laughing, and, you know, being human. This went on for several minutes, and we could physically feel the energy in the space alter from one of apathy and resentment to one of levity and excitement. The show was electric that day, and the power of kindness and humanity offstage has never been clearer to me."
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