New York Woman Helps Turn Nonprofessionals Into Shakespeareans


Lear deBessonet, 34, seems to have found a charmed way to reconcile her passion for social justice with her devotion to the theater, doing good works by making good work.

She is directing “The Winter’s Tale,” a 90-minute musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s late play that opened Sept. 5 at the Delacorte Theater in New York.

Ms. deBessonet is the production’s director with the theater production company Public Works.

“The Winter’s Tale” is the second production of Public Works, an arm of the Public Theater, and is aimed at blurring cultural and social boundaries.

It mixes professional actors with volunteers drawn from such partner groups as Domestic Workers United, as well as cameo performances by the likes of the “Sesame Street” cast, DanceBrazil, and the Shinbone Alley Stilt Band.

Last year, Ms. deBessonet presided over “The Tempest,” which featured more than 200 Public Works participants, most of them stage novices. (Norm Lewis and Laura Benanti were among the singers in a production that Claudia La Rocco in The New York Times called “vibrantly alive.”)

Now Ms. deBessonet is trying to work that same magic on another play with a wildly varied cast.

Born in Baton Rouge, La., she’s lived in New York for 13 years, since the director Anne Bogart took her on as an assistant director.

In her first years in New York, she directed and devised serious works while commuting to Philadelphia to volunteer with the Broad Street Ministry. She also created a program which brought nontraditional audiences to Off Broadway shows.

More recently, she decided use her zeal to help create Public Works, a new kind of theater.

“I wanted to make work that speaks to everybody,” she said, “to tell stories that are large enough.”  She created a version of “Don Quixote” in Philadelphia with a cast largely assembled from the homeless men and women who frequented Broad Street Ministry. Then she developed a community-based version of “The Odyssey” with more than 181 San Diego residents.

When The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, began his search for someone to head Public Works, a program “to create works of theater that speak to a broad public,” he asked deBessonet.

Together they recruited five partner organizations — the Children’s Aid Society, DreamYard Project, Domestic Workers United, Fortune Society, Brownsville Recreation Center — sponsoring acting classes, dance workshops and play-reading groups. “The Tempest” and “The Winter’s Tale” culminate these year-round efforts.

“She’s able to make every person feel like they are vital to the experience, that their presence is crucial,” said Todd Almond, who has acted in and composed the music for both Public Works shows.

Making people feel valued is only a part of her work and by no means the hardest.

“It’s not meant to be amateurish and feel good. It’s meant to be a work of art,” said Almond.

She won’t be satisfied, said deBessonet, if the production comes across as simply worthy. “I don’t want it to elicit just a ‘Good for them! They tried!’ cheer,” she said.

Ms. deBessonet has benefited, too.

The Public Works shows seem to have had an enriching effect on her professional directing jobs, like the blissful, Obie-winning “Good Person of Szechwan” starring Taylor Mac, which transferred to the Public last season.

While as searching and rigorous as her early works, this production was much merrier and more inviting.

She’s even taken on more commercial projects, like the recent Encores! Off Center revival of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

For “Winter’s Tale,” she is tasked with turning scores of nonprofessionals into real Shakespeareans.

Ms. deBessonet said that the commitment of these actors to the work has made her even more determined to create a compelling play with them and for them.   “The generosity of these people, their bravery, their willingness to step outside of their own comfort zone, it challenges me to want to meet that bravery,” she said.

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