Creating As You Like It With 5 Actors, Lucha Libre Wrestlers, and Dabka Dancers
Director Laurie Woolery and composer and performer Shaina Taub discuss this year's Public Theater free Public Works production, which features a cast of 200.
As the dog days of summer give way to Labor Day weekend, the Public Theater's summer season at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, the longtime home of its free Shakespeare in the Park series, comes to a close with its Public Works initiative production of As You Like It. Public Works has been bringing together community groups, specialty organizations, and a handful of professional actors to create massive pageants that give new musical life to classic texts. About 200 performers from across the city populate each production. One year, even Big Bird showed up.
As You Like It, running September 1-5, is on tap for this year. Adapted by Laurie Woolery, the Public Works artistic director, and composer and performer Shaina Taub, who also takes on the role of Jacques, the production stars stage vets including Rebecca Naomi Jones (Significant Other) and Joel Perez (Fun Home), as well as members from groups including the Brownsville Recreation Center, Fortune Society, and Military Resilience Project. Also joining them in Shakespeare's Forest of Arden are gospel singers from Harlem, Lucha Libre wrestlers from the Bronx, and Dabka dancers from Brooklyn. The huge cast proves that all the world really is a stage. But Woolery and Taub are more than players: They're inspirations.
How did you go about adapting As You Like It into a one-act musical that would suit both the strengths of the professional actors and members of the community groups, as well as reflect the world in which we live?
Shaina Taub: Having worked with the community last summer, I knew what they were capable of. It was just sitting at a piano and trying to make a score that I felt would resonate with them and was as eclectic and inclusive as our community is. It's really fun to be able to write a show that incorporates a lot of influences from different musical traditions.
Laurie Woolery: It always felt that the community was in those writing sessions with us. In our first meeting, we sat together and Shaina and I said, "What can we do that's authentically Public Works?" We broke the play apart and started lifting out the things that interested us and what we thought would interest the community.
How do you delineate who's playing which role, a professional actor or a community member?
Laurie: We made a very conscious choice to up the roles of our community members this year, for them to step into the spotlight, to own the language and these characters. It ripples through our ensemble, which we are calling upon to carve out characters and develop backstories. When you set the bar high, people respond, whether they have a label of "professional" on them or not.
Shaina: I put "professional" in quotes, because one of the philosophies of Public Works is that talent is a continuum, and some of us do it for a living, some not. It felt important for our central lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, [to be Equity actors] just because there's so much heavy lifting with text and song. But everyone is held to the highest artistic standard. I like to do an exit poll of friends and ask who they thought the professionals were, and more often than not, they're wrong.
Tell me about choosing the cameo groups like Bronx Wrestling Federation. What strategies go into that?
Laurie: Our goal is to take an art form that they do and place it in the context of this different artform, which is not just a play, but a super-amped-up 200-person extravaganza. It's a lot of communicating and finding out where they're coming from, and finding ways to collaborate together. Shaina has written the music, but she leaves the space for the beats per second that they need to have.
Shaina: It's exciting. The other day, we started in Harlem with the gospel choir, and ended the day with the Dabka group at the Public, working on the same song, 12 hours apart.
Laurie: Last week, we went up to the Bronx Wrestling Federation. It was [actor] Ato Blankson-Wood's second day and we threw him into a ring. Where else but Public Works would you find yourself on a Wednesday night in the Bronx, in a gym, collaborating with Lucha Libre wrestlers?
What do you want audiences to get out of the show?
Shaina: What we realized is that Arden, the forest in the play, is a place you go to have a reckoning and a transformation. Going to a Public Works show feels like going to Arden and getting to have this mirror held up to you and reality. The characters leave Arden with new lessons they've learned. We go into Central Park together, which is an Arden of sorts, have this communal reckoning, and hopefully bring those lessons back to the streets of New York. We think we're supposed to play a certain role in society based on how we look or where we come from, and part of going to Arden is stripping that away and realizing what that authentic self is, which definitely feels resonant now.