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‘Lovers and Madmen’: An interview with Lear deBessonet

Director of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Delacorte and the Founder of Public Works and Resident Director at the Public Theater Speaks to the Eagle

July 10, 2017 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Lear deBessonet. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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If ever there was summer we could use some diversion, this is it. I began writing this profile of/interview with the Founder of Public Works and Resident Director Lear deBessonet — who is currently in rehearsal for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” starting previews July 11 at the Delacorte Theater — on the day Donald Trump unleashed his vile Twitter attack on Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. Consequently, before diving into the interview, it seems fitting to digress.

As New Yorkers, we have a cornucopia of cultural offerings spread before us 365 days a year, which means that we tend to become blase about just how exceptional and exciting many of these offerings are. Exhibit A: The Public Theater. Since 1967, when the former Astor Library in Lower Manhattan became the Public’s principal venue and opened with “Hair” (not incidentally, an anti-Vietnam War musical) as its first production, this iconic and beloved arts institution has weathered many political storms, the most recent of which involved Artistic Director Oskar Eustis’ decision in his production of “Julius Caesar” last month to depict Caesar as a blonde Trump-like figure, complete with boxy business suit and long red tie. Fox News and Breitbart went on social media with a campaign against the Public, a campaign that picked up steam and drew supporters, most of whom had not even seen the production. As a result of the controversy, Bank of America and Delta Airlines withdrew their support of “Julius Caesar” and American Express took to Twitter to clarify that its “sponsorship of the Public Theater does not fund the production of Shakespeare in the Park nor do we condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play.” Et tu, AmEx? And how ironic that the financial services company’s logo is a centurion. In any event, by 2020 (hopefully sooner) our long collective nightmare will be over. In the meantime, thank God — and Public Theater founder (and Brooklynite) Joe Papp — we have The Public. Long after the golden-haired pretender to the throne has, for the final time, laid his fluffy head on White House pillows, the Public will still be standing, thriving and enriching New Yorker’s lives.

Let’s now restore amends and move on to the subject at hand: The Public’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which is directed by the formidable deBessonet. Since arriving in New York 16 years ago, this Baton Rouge native (who has lived in Brooklyn since first arriving) has been dazzling audiences and critics alike with both her leadership of Public Works, the Public Theater’s initiative, started in 2012, to engage underserved communities in all five boroughs in participatory theater “by making them creators and not just spectators” and her sure-handed direction of such theatrical spectacles as “The Tempest,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Odyssey,” with  200-member casts composed of community members, professional actors and special guests. Partnering in these productions are civic organizations as diverse as the Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), the Children’s Aid Society (Manhattan), DreamYard Project (Bronx) and the Fortune Society (Queens), plus Domestic Workers United (all boroughs, including Staten Island.) Alexis Soloski, in an August 2014 New York Times article on Public Works’ production of “The Winter’s Tale,” described the “magic” with which deBessonet marshalled the enthusiasm of a crowd of “4 -year-olds and 90-year-olds … teachers and taxi drivers and nannies and ushers” into an organized theatrical ensemble. In fact, words like “magic,” “alchemy” and “supernatural” appear frequently in profiles of deBessonet. Like Peter Ustinov’s ringmaster in “Lola Montes” (but without his whip), deBessonet conducts her colossal creations with wit, aplomb and unshakable confidence.

Thus, I begin by asking her from what source she got her single-minded focus and confidence.

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

 

Lear deBessonet: My confidence comes from my mother!  She taught me to be fearless.

Eagle: Did your parents name you “Lear” because they were major Shakespeare fans? It is an unusual first name…

LDB: (laughing) No, it was my grandmother’s name.

Eagle: I can’t wait to see the credits when you do your first “King Lear.”

LDB: (laughing) Me, too. “Lear’s Lear.”

Eagle: Tell me a bit about the genesis of Public Works

LDB: Public Works evolved out of an ongoing inquiry into how to make the theater more inclusive and progressive. It also came out of my fascination with the American Pageant Association.

Eagle: What is that exactly?  

LDB: In the early 20th century, the American Pageant Association created historical pageants in cities and small towns, designed to inspire social and political change and to teach both native-born citizens and immigrants about a city or town’s historical past and guide them toward an inclusive future. That was the goal, although it was not inclusive enough to include women and blacks and newer immigrants. At Public Works we’re using that model, while correcting those exclusions.

Eagle: Do you feel that directing these Public Works productions has enriched and enhanced your professional direction of more commercial projects, such as the Encores Off Center revival of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in 2014 and your “The Good Person of Szechwan” the year before at the Public?

LDB: Yes, absolutely. Directing these large-scale Public Works productions has sharpened my skills. For example, encouraging actors to find their own moments while being part of a large ensemble. And making me more open to finding moments of humor, even in dark, “serious” plays.

Eagle: Was there a template for these massive, immersive productions?

LDB: Yes. I developed the Public Works model through two extended projects that I did before coming to the Public: A 50-person “Don Quixote” in Philadelphia with the homeless shelter Broad Street Ministry and a 200-person production of “The Odyssey” at the Old Globe in San Diego.

Eagle: Were you and Oskar on the same page from the beginning?

LDB: Yes. Oskar is a uniquely lion-hearted genius and he had the courage to want to make Public Works a year-round program at the Public. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive, fearless partner.

Eagle: What has been your approach to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? What, if anything, do you feel makes it different or distinctive?

LDB: My approach has been to start with a very close, detailed reading of the text. There are four distinct storylines that comprise the plot and the fabric of “Midsummer.” There also many changes in mood, tone, texture. I have to, quite literally, keep everyone on the same page.

 

Eagle: What are the special challenges of a directing a production out-of-doors? You have to deal with low-flying planes and helicopters, aisle traffic during the performance, “the clamorous owl.” How do you handle them?

LDB: Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, directing is chaos management. In my years directing plays outdoors, I’m always reminded that we are here at the grace of mother nature. So, in case of rain or wind or a pesky mosquito, I always have a B version to accommodate the circumstances.

Eagle: Eventually would you like to add movies and television to your directing resume?

LDB: Right now, I’m still enjoying the challenges and rewards of theater directing. [Laughing] Truthfully, if I were going to direct anything other than theater I’d like to direct an Olympic opening ceremony.

 

Eagle: Well, if Los Angeles wins the 2024 Games you might just get your chance!

LDB: That would be great … but only if I could commute from Brooklyn!

 

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begins previews at the Delacorte Theater on July 11 and runs through Aug. 13. For schedule and ticket information, visit publictheater.org.

 


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