Theatre at the heart of public life: Seattle Rep’s Public Works

By Carl Sylvestre

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II

I often hear the expression, “theatre changed my life.”  This September, it took on additional meaning for me when I heard it from a woman waiting to make her debut on Seattle Rep’s main stage in a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery.  A couple of years before, she might not have stepped inside the theatre.  Yet, here she was on that stage in a cast of a hundred, most of them making their theatrical debut in a stunningly well-produced show.   She left me star-struck.

Seattle Rep’s Public Works, first launched in the fall of 2016, aims to help this Tony-winning regional theatre build a stronger connection to the city.  The program is based around collaborative, mutually-beneficial partnerships with eight local community organizations, most of which serve low-income communities and those with a higher proportion of individuals of color.

I attended Seattle Rep’s 2019-20 season opener of As You Like It on September 6th, on behalf of Theatre Forward.  Through our Advancing Strong Theatre initiative, Theatre Forward is helping to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to experience theatre regardless of income, education, age, race, religion, ability and/or gender identity.  In addition to supporting Seattle Rep’s Public Works, funding from our Advancing Strong Theatre supported Public Works Dallas at Dallas Theater Center, as well as Globe for All at the Old Globe in San Diego and Stories from the Drum at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis since 2018.

With a cast of more than 100 people, including more than 80 amateurs, five professional actors, and five cameo groups, Seattle Rep’s Public Works’ As You Like It was a big production. All tickets to the performances were offered free of charge. Support from funders like Theatre Forward made this possible, allowing Seattle Rep to remove cost as a barrier to attendance.  All told, over 2,500 Seattle residents were able to experience this production; impressively, 44% of them were first-time attendees.

In addition to engaging the Seattle community at large, Seattle Rep’s As You Like It represented a significant milestone for Public Works community members, many of whom are regular participants in the program’s weekly theatre classes and workshops which take place nearly year-round in neighborhoods throughout the city. That is how my path crossed with a woman (let’s call her T) who was first connected with Seattle Rep through the Jubilee Women’s Center.  The Center, which supports previously homeless women in building stable and fulfilling futures, encourages the women they work with to participate in the community, meet new people, exercise their creativity and try something that they have never done before.  As one of Seattle Rep’s Public Works Partners, Jubilee Women’s Center hosts weekly theatre workshops on-site.

In addition to her work at Seattle Rep, T has just finished a culinary program. As she often did, she brought cupcakes to share with everyone at the community dinner prior to the final dress rehearsal. T shared with me that she started by participating in a theatre workshop offered through Public Works.  She enjoyed the classes so much that she decided to audition for the September production.  In spite of competing demands on her time, she was seriously committed to Seattle Rep’s Public Works events and rehearsals.  Last season she saw all of Seattle Rep’s productions – In The Heights was a favorite.  She said participating in Public Works has helped her gain confidence and that she is more outgoing than she had been in the past.  Now, before the final dress rehearsal, she was nervous and excited about being in the play.

T’s story is one of many examples of how Seattle Rep is breaking down barriers to become an integral part of civic life in Seattle.  The Public Works model was first launched in 2013 at the Public Theater in New York with the aim of restoring and building community by connecting people through the theatre – both as audience members and performers.  Program participants begin their work on the production six weeks before the performances and participate in about 20 rehearsals during that time.

Seattle Rep Artistic Director, Braden Abraham, brought Public Works to Seattle five years ago to challenge inequities facing the theatre and the field as a whole.  Through Public Works, Seattle Rep is going back to its roots through service to a wider community.  He states, “In Seattle, our professional theater evolved from programs created by the short-lived Federal Theater Project in the mid-1930s – programs which, like Public Works, were designed to make theater more available and more relevant to more Americans. I believe theater as an art and Seattle Rep as an institution can and should help build and preserve our community, and one of the best ways to do so is to make theater in collaboration with everyone.  This shared activity reminds us that no matter our differences, we have a vital and precious relationship and a shared desire to make our community stronger.”

This is an ambitious goal and one that can only authentically be achieved through working partnerships with community partners who share Seattle Rep’s Public Works core values of equity, imagination, and joy.  When these values come together, powerful changes can happen.  Meredith Sibley of Seattle Rep partner Byrd Barr Place, commented that, “As the oldest Community Action Agency in Washington state, our vision has been a world free of poverty for more than 50 years, and while we are at this work day in and day out, administering eviction prevention and financial education programs, trying to keep the rug from being pulled out from under the most vulnerable residents in our city, Public Works is stepping in where we don’t have the capacity as a small non-profit. They are making it possible to extend more to our clients than just services to meet basic needs. This is care to address the whole person. We know firsthand at Byrd Barr Place that you have to lift someone’s spirits, as the first step on the pathway out of poverty. Connection, laughter, and belonging are essential when we think of a thriving individual, and that is what Public Works provides our clients access to.”

Public Works is not only transforming the lives of participants, it also has an impact on the theatre staff, informing their approach to welcoming various audiences.  As part of Public Works, they send a Mobile Box Office out into the community, which allows community members to sign up for tickets in person and greatly increased participation rates. These mobile units are now being used for all Seattle Rep shows.

The achievements of the Public Works program exemplify the critical role that theatres across the country play to help build stronger communities, serving as a gathering place where all types of dreams can be nurtured.  Most of these dreams are not about the bright lights of Broadway.  The goal can be about creating space for someone to build the confidence to go on that job interview, to go back to school to improve their career prospects or to simply provide them strength and joy.

Seattle Rep’s Public Works aims to blur the lines between artists and spectators to create theatre of, by, and for the people of Seattle.  From my observations, they accomplished that on so many levels.  As the performance ended, I looked at the stage and the audience and once again believed that, yes, all the world’s a stage and we are all players in a game called life searching for connection, for our common humanity.