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Whose Public?

Photograph of the facade of The Public Theater in Manhattan, a banner that says "THE PUBLIC" and "RADICALLY INCLUSIVE" on prominent display.

The Public Theater. Photograph by Jenzia Burgos, 2018.

Places of Performance

Five years ago, The Public Theater on Astor Place finally unveiled years of renovations, relinquishing the scaffolding and heavy machinery which once overwhelmed Lafayette Street. Only weeks later, a group of friends and I made the pilgrimage from our arts high school in Queens to The Public Theater one evening after school. It was a place we had loved so dearly a year before, the kind of space we all imagined ourselves working in one day. We used to lean lazily along the Corinthian columns of the lobby, comforted by the sturdy way they carried history forth. Bathed in the warm glow of overhead lanterns, we would wait eagerly for show time; lightweight aluminum chairs were also scattered about casually, ready to be pulled over should we have wished to sit. The relaxed practicality of it all beckoned our return, again and again. Now, we were eager to see what had changed, excited to experience this spirit anew. A blend of pedestrians weaved around us as we crossed the street from the Astor Place station, the unfamiliar bright lights of The Public illuminating the short distance. Sprawling gray granite steps soon slid us up into the lobby. A black doorman let us in through tall glass doors; he was a new addition. We chirped our thanks, looked up and around, and suddenly fell silent.

Stunned. The space was blindingly white. Not just the folks milling about, throwing their heads back in large laughter with cups of chardonnay grasped in their hands. The space was quite literally white: the walls, the lights, the ceilings. White without nuance, without past or future context. A relentless, harsh whiteness—the entire lobby a spotlight where one is put on display the moment they enter, left to flounder without direction in this blank void. But then, there was some color peppered about the very periphery of the lobby. Red letters set under archways indicated the names of The Public’s five theater spaces. Red like a conscious afterthought: What other powerful color could we use? There was something more transfixing floating directly before us, the lobby’s main attraction. A techy chandelier, pulled out of a dystopian sci-fi future. Its body swooped down from the ceiling, reaching out its white-paneled arms like splayed blades of a fan. On each panel, there read a different Shakespeare reference, illuminated in digitized font. An impressive algorithm seemed to switch these references out periodically. Overwhelmed by it all, my friends and I had failed to move beyond the entrance. Finally, the doorman gently approached us and requested we step to the side. He smiled sympathetically and offered, “It’s something, ain’t it?”

Something, indeed. So much something that we ended up not seeing a show that night, intimidated by the grandeur and disheartened by what felt like an elite restructuring of a once humbler space. I grew out of that shock eventually, or rather, learned to suppress it. I go to The Public often now, as it remains a theater whose work I value immensely, with plays that reflect my life, the lives of other marginalized folks, and a push for inclusion and diversity. Yet, there is still that sinking feeling every time I enter the lobby. An echo of doubt that tells me this is not a space for me, nor for many of my friends or family—for they, too, would not feel at home here. And then, there is the guilt; it swims in my gut, lurching and reprimanding me for supporting this contradictory place. A place of performance where the work is inclusive, but the building is not.

It is this very guilt which compels me to examine these performance spaces. It now seems that the sociocultural event of theater requires a change of focus—it must be tied to the very spaces where theatrical performance occurs, as the way people experience theater is by no means governed solely by what happens on stage. The entire theater, with its physical appearance and design, its associated public spaces, and even its location within the city contributes to a politics of cultural dominance and access. It is necessary to reveal the ways that New York City theaters, often touting themselves as cultural forums and hubs for inclusivity, are both succeeding and failing in ways to meet these goals through their most visceral, visual spatial impressions.

The Public Theater is particularly fascinating to consider, as its rich history and artistic contributions only complicate the institution’s relationship to its physical venue on Astor Place. The building, formerly the Astor Library during the nineteenth-century, has housed The Public since 1967. Since then, The Public—one of the first non-profit theaters in America—has defined its mission and theatrical works in terms of cultural and creative accessibility. As its name suggests, The Public’s mission statement reads “The Public Theater is theater of, by, and for the people.” They further declare their dedication to “artist-driven, radically inclusive, and fundamentally democratic” work and continue to operate on the principles that “theater is an essential cultural force and that art and culture belong to everyone.” Subjectively speaking, The Public has indeed produced a wide breadth of artistic work and civic programming initiatives that adhere to this mission. They produce Free Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, tour the five boroughs with their Mobile Unit group, and partner with organizations throughout New York City with their Public Works program to allow low-income, disenfranchised community members to perform and create theater of their own. Yet, there is the unshakeable sense that these communities remain separated, with a palpable hierarchy between them and the permanent, landmarked home of The Public on Astor Place.

This contemporary iteration of separate-but-equal programming allows The Public to suggest their “radical inclusion” while specifically designating alternative spaces for alternative bodies. As such, they have essentially relegated their diverse audiences to the very spaces they already occupy, aiming to bring theater to poor, ethnic neighborhoods while discouraging the presence of these populations at The Public’s Astor Place location. While outreach is inarguably a wonderful step in accessibility, these programs still make it so that these folks are confined to experience theater only in their own spaces. Rather than universalizing the venue of The Public, such that marginalized groups feel safe, understood, and eager to be considered within in the space, The Public perpetuates a savior system where they can bridge access by “bringing culture” to poor communities through programs like Public Works.

Of course, The Public Theater is not expressly voicing that they wish to prevent anyone from participating at their venue. During the unveiling of their newly renovated space, artistic director Oskar Eustis expressed that The Public was open to everyone, and all of New York City was invited to come see. He continued, stating “this renovation of our home building is designed to create a lively, welcoming center for people to meet, gather, and celebrate.” Although, it remains hard to believe that everyone would ultimately feel welcome in a space whose flashy redesign cost $40 million, let alone that all could gain access. Of course, also at play here is the issue of financial accessibility, of which The Public severely neglects. Most ticket prices start at $75 and can soar well over $100—whopping prices for off-Broadway. Even student pricing is steep at $30, compared to the $15 standard at most other off-Broadway venues.

If one does manage to chalk up the money and make it past the pristine lobby, as I eventually did, the opulence of the space is even more suffocating. One may walk up to a glass-flanked mezzanine that overlooks the lobby: an extra space for guests to sip their special drinks, bearing names like “the Jersey Lightning Sling” made with Laird’s applejack and house-made orgeat. Adjacent to the mezzanine is the Library, a cocktail lounge where one can find more of said pompous drinks and food. The Library is a sight straight out of a sophisticated hipster’s wet dream, featuring vintage nineteenth-century era light fixtures, polished walnut tables, mahogany-colored leather armchairs, bar stools, seats, and velvet couches, and, of course, free Wi-Fi. I’m not one to stop people from having nice things. Yet, the ease with which many guests occupy this space is distressing. As The Public channels (and anticipates) the bourgeois tastes of a group of mostly white, middle and upper-middle-class patrons, all guests are effectively expected to align with or aspire to this shared whiteness and class, too—an uncomfortable task for many.

On that night five years ago, my friends and I were particularly attuned to this. As a group of mostly black and brown kids from low-income families, we felt suddenly betrayed, asked to open our already cash-strapped wallets for a place that so obviously displayed its allegiances. This was just one of many instances in which we—our races, our money, and our tastes—were not represented in the very place that loved to say we were. The kind of place that parades our very identities on stage, assuaging the anxieties of their white audiences, and capitalizes on the after show. These same audiences stay awhile to drink and talk, performing their own progressiveness for each other as they battle to out-praise the racialized subjects of the most recent production.

Rejecting this atmosphere, we set out to find venues that didn’t rely on this self-congratulatory display. We looked for spaces that felt like our homes, whose theaters recognized that great work was possible, if not even greater, within the confines of humble spaces—and whose audiences hopefully shared the sentiment. Somewhere along the way, we started frequenting Abrons Arts Center, another landmark theater on the Lower East Side. Abrons is somehow unassuming despite its size, such that one could easily pass right by without interest if they didn’t know what to look for. None of us quite expected to find a theater like this, one that quite literally looked like our homes—that is, a short and wide building made of the same dirty red bricks one finds on buildings in the projects. This design is a likely result of Abrons’s historical context, as it was founded for a predominately low-income, immigrant community. Completed in 1975, Abrons also operates as part of the larger Henry Street Settlement, a non-profit social service agency founded back in 1893. The Settlement’s commitment to the arts began with its founder, Lillian Wald, who believed all individuals needed the opportunity for artistic and creative expression.

It is no surprise, then, that Abrons writes that the organization is dedicated to cultivating artists “in all stages of their creative development through educational programs and residencies” and to presenting “innovative, multi-disciplinary work.” Like The Public Theater, Abrons also declares their commitment to inclusion. However, rather than The Public’s reductive statement as “radically inclusive,”— as in, they won’t list out all the ways they are(n’t)—Abrons’ “declaration of inclusion” is a paragraph long. They express a goal to be an “anti-oppressive home to people from all backgrounds,” and pay respect to the Lenape people, recognizing that the very island Abrons exists on is also the homeland of an indigenous community. It is fascinating to read these statements as fixed promises, as I have somehow felt them for years in Abrons’ walls.

That red brick façade, which mimics what remains a contemporary design for New York City state-funded housing developments, communicates memories of poverty and histories of tenement buildings. Abrons can sometimes blend into the surrounding landscape and “disappear” because of these very connotations, as it refuses to announce itself like the grandiose off-Broadway venue of The Public. Yet, a more charming element to the space is the wide entrance court before the brick building, comprised of terraced radial steps akin to those in Union Square Park. These concrete crescent steps extend far beyond those of The Public, almost mimicking the setting of an amphitheater and leveling out to more pavement before you even reach an entryway. These steps are Abrons’s real lobby—they are where you will find actors sprawled out reading lines, students waiting for their arts workshops, and patrons chatting before or after a show. In cultivating a lobby without walls, Abrons’s design is decidedly democratic. The open space suggests that Abrons is confident its people will find and recognize the building for what it is: a place of community, historically serving those who could not otherwise financially afford exposure to the arts. Rather than bringing culture to these people by way of traveling external programs, Abrons set up house in the very neighborhood that needed them, a kind of LES lighthouse for the arts.

All this being said, I’ve often heard patrons call Abrons ugly. Fair enough. Though few people seem to complain about how ugly the projects are, except the people forced to live and exist within those spaces. As Abrons has shifted over time from a space exclusively serving its once low-income community to a nationally and internationally recognized venue, I can’t help but recognize an irony that now exists within the space. Despite appealing to an increasingly wealthy and esoteric demographic, Abrons retains its ugly façade—ugly insofar as it does not ascribe to an image of affluence. Yet it is a breed of pointed ugliness which only repels those who fear it—such that proximity to this space would suggest a proximity to poverty. There is value in this insistence, then. As the building forces an impoverished identity and history onto its patrons, its appearance becomes a legitimizing force: Theater can exist in spaces like this, theater can attract in spaces like this, and theater is worthwhile in spaces like this. It further extends to a heightening of the very bodies who tend to occupy these spaces—their presence, like Abrons’s structure, is what allows for invaluable theater.

Abrons is still the place I turn to when I’m overwhelmed by a weekend at bougie theaters, those where the well-meaning man in the seat next to me says, “It must be so wonderful to see young women like you on stage,” as if The Public Theater is personally doing me any favors. Of course, no theater is left untouched. That guy is everywhere, at every show, infiltrating every space, whether in body or spirit. He exists as a palpable pull in the atmosphere, one which begs theater spaces to conform to hierarchy. Should the place assume the role of hegemony, audiences need not be racist, sexist, or transphobic themselves. The space can do it for them, relieving them of the labor that comes with maintaining power. A space that subsumes this toxicity, one only so apparent to the very bodies it poisons, disempowers.

One can only hope that spaces will resist this pull. Abrons, however, announced a renovation of its own in August 2017, pioneered by Ennead—the same architectural firm responsible for The Public’s redesign. So it goes.