features + interviews

Lear deBessonet Makes Theater as a Hopeful Public Proposal

[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, January 20, 2019.]

LEAR DEBESSONET

In a previous series of CFR stories called Critical I, theater critics were asked to reflect on their work — what is relevantwho is and is not a critic; the audience for critical writing. We asked critics to tell their own stories and to offer their personal views of criticism.

In this new series, I will have conversations with theater creators on stage and backstage about their influences, personal and professional visions, successes and challenges, and what it takes to do what they do.

My first conversation was with director Lear deBessonet, who was named last week as the first-ever resident director of City Center’s acclaimed Encores! series, working alongside Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman. deBessonet is perhaps best known, however, as creator of the Public Works program at the Public Theater, which was founded in 2013 with the intention of inviting NYC audiences to engage with theater both as spectators and creators. Public Works identifies local partners to build community participation in workshops, classes, productions and in the Public Theater’s daily life. Even as deBessonet continued to direct more conventionally staged works — Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama and the Public in 2013; Suzan Lori-Parks’ Venus at Signature in 2017; the Quiara Alegría Hudes-Erin McKeown musical Miss You Like Hell at the Public in 2018 — her expansive vision for Public Works has allowed her to establish a unique niche within the field. Using enormous casts (200 people or more, typically, coming from all five boroughs), her Public Works projects include The Tempest (2013), The Winter’s Tale (2014), The Odyssey (2015), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015), all at the Delacorte. The model has been so successful that replications can or will be seen in Dallas, Seattle, Detroit and London.

The following is a condensed and lightly edited version of my recent phone interview with deBessonet.

Do you have a personal or professional statement or vision?

Two statements baked into the fabric of Public Works reflect my personal artistic statement. First, “this is our proposal to humanity.” The idea of art as a proposal, not just reflecting and critiquing the world as it exists, but also offering other ideas of what might be and how we might exist together. Second, when we describe Public Works in one sentence, we say, “We make ambitious works of participatory theater.” That phrase is straight from my bloodstream — even works that don’t have 200 people in them, even if participation is just the audience’s imagination. There is a fundamental exchange happening between actors, designers and the audience — all the people coming together around a show. I would never want to do something that didn’t feel participatory.

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