Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Public Theater shines its house

Attending the Public Theater's Oct. 4 celebration of its newly renovated Astor Place home in lower Manhattan, I had to marvel "who woulda thought it if you were there at the beginning?"

Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (which became the Public Theater) in 1954 on almost nothing and in the early years of the festival fought municipal power broker Robert Moses over whether he could offer Shakespeare for free in Central Park. (Papp won and the Public has been producing free Shakespeare ever since.)

Today, the $40 million revitalization of the 158-year-old Astor Library was cheered by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of cultural officials from a municipality that put up a heroic $28 million of the total cost. Bloomberg noted that in 1967, the city rented the dilapidated building to Papp for $1 per year and "we have been richly repaid."

In addition, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubinas not only represented a major funding organization, but told a poignant memory of visiting the place as a young man and encountering Papp, who told him he was too early for curtain time but to stick around because he was welcome.

In its 58 years of existence, the influence of the Public Theater can't be overestimated, from the idea that great theater belongs to everyone (the Public's mobile unit takes Shakespeare to New York neighborhoods and such institutions as prisons); to the development of plays and musicals that speak to the times (Hair, Sticks and Bones, The Normal Heart); to the nurturing of African-American, Asian, female playwrights; to pioneering the workshop model of play development (A Chorus Line).  

The Public Theater's newly-renovated lobby with artist Ben Rubin's "Shakespeare Machine" - a chandelier with lighted digital blades that will be programmed with quotes from the Bard.

The building now houses four theaters and the successful cabaret venue Joe's Pub. Remarkably, the theaters remained open during the four-year renovation. Last spring, when I saw Gatz (click HERE for that blog post), I walked on planks and stepped around construction equipment.

Ubinas recalled that the Public's current artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in fine Pappian spirit, started the ball rolling by saying, "I have this impossible-to-renovate old building. There are no [original architectural] plans. The building could fall in for all we know once we open it up."

What's resulted under the leadership of Ennead Architects is a spectacular re-thinking of the lobby and exterior. On the sidewalk, the main entrance now embraces the street with a glass canopy and wide granite steps and ramps. Historic preservation work restored the brick work and decoration on the facade.

The lobby gleams with a unified box office, "library" area and balcony on the mezzanine, restoration of historic moldings and a digital chandelier that will run quotes from Shakespeare in unique patterns. The Public has brought in some excellent chefs, starting with Joe's Pub, to create unique menus but it doesn't quite seem in the egalitarian spirit to serve $14 cocktails.

Work done in the theaters themselves involved heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades, addition of fire sprinklers and electrical upgrades. I was a little disappointed to see that the pathetically uncomfortable seats in the Newman Theater which I encountered at Gatz are apparently remaining in place.

But Eustis said the space is truly "open to the public," and you can walk into the lobby "go to that fountain and get a drink." The spirit of Papp was present as Eustis said "the greatest art belong to everybody and it is made greater if it belongs to everybody." The Public has always been founded on that idea of communication and community, that theater isn't just a one-way street.

Vanessa Redgrave reciting Shakespeare as Oskar Eustis looks on. 
In a heartfelt directorial stroke, performance was part of the celebration and Vanessa Redgrave, Mandy Patinkin, Liev Schreiber, playwrights David Henry Hwang and Suzan-Lori Parks, Bloomberg and Papp's widow Gail, among others, took turns reading appropriate excerpts from Shakespeare:

"I have lived to see inherited my very wishes and the buildings of my fancy." Coriolanus

"There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple." The Tempest

When we mean to build/We first survey the plot." Henry IV 1

And Eustis wrapped with "I can no other answer make but thanks/And thanks; and ever thanks. (Twelfth Night)

And to leave us with a rousing song, the young cast of the recent Broadway revival of Hair sang "Let the Sun Shine In" from the mezzanine. It was a fitting sendoff for another half century, at least.

The cast of Hair 


  1. Hi Solange,

    We met yesterday at the reception. I love your blog posting about the re-dedication. You've summarized well the morning's events. I especially love that you wrote about how unegalitarian $14 cocktails are. LOL. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Take care,'


    1. Thanks, Carman! Hope we meet again in the renovated lobby some day!