The Public Theater on Lafayette Street.
Ah, youth. In 1978, at the green age of 16, I first visited the Public Theater on Lafayette Street on a short weekend trip from my home of Hazleton, PA, for a day of theatregoing that could easily bruise the sensibilities of a callow youth. In the afternoon, I enjoyed Robert Woodruff’s staging of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class; after a dinner break, I returned for Thomas Babe’s A Prayer for My Daughter (a play ripe for revival here in New York; it had a London revival in 2008).
Those were the glory years for Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival; A Chorus Line was providing a fresh infusion of cash into the Public’s coffers, and it was a rare night on which any of the Public’s (five stages? six?) performance spaces were dark. I returned several times over the next twenty years or so, but I never found the same electricity as I did that March day in 1978. Papp died in 1991, and by then the Chorus Line cash cow wasn’t delivering quite as much milk. During the tenures of JoAnne Akalaitis and George C. Wolfe as subsequent artistic directors, the Public fell into something of an aesthetic and business funk — then, indeed, there were many days and weeks during which all of the Public’s stages were dark.
As a tyro playwright, even in those days, I duly submitted my plays — dreadful imitations of Brecht and Pinter — to the Public’s literary office, which still accepted over-the-transom manuscripts, and after no more than a month always received rejection letters (though sometimes with an encouraging handwritten note asking to see my next play, a sheer godsend for a teenager smitten with the theatre). The Public liked playwrights back then. Legend has it that when Joseph Papp discovered that Wallace Shawn had to work in a copy shop just to make ends meet, he offered Shawn the same amount of salary just to permit Shawn to spend his days writing plays instead. These days, this would constitute a revolutionary commitment to the “emerging playwright”; in those days, it was just good sense and a favor from an artistic director to an artist. (And it paid off, as you’ll see below; on one of my subsequent visits to the Public, I saw Shawn perform The Fever.)
Over the past few years, the Public, under Oskar Eustis‘ artistic direction, has been generating a little more of that electricity — and yesterday’s announcement of the Public’s 2013-2014 season exemplifies the energy. The Public will be co-producing the US premiere of Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors in the fall (and a revival of his best play to date, The Designated Mourner, this summer); also this fall, the Public is bringing in the Foundry Theatre’s new production of Good Person of Szechwan, directed by Lear deBessonet and starring Taylor Mac, which first opened at La MaMa earlier this year. There’s also Arguendo, a new performance from Elevator Repair Service; four “Apple family” plays by Richard Nelson in rotating repertory; new plays from Suzan-Lori Parks and the Civilians; a new production of Antony and Cleopatra; and 29(!) monologues from Mike Daisey.
It is, even by the standards of the grotesque hype and Facebook blubbering that accompanies these season announcements, a tempting menu, even for a confirmed skeptic like myself — and maybe one that will bring Ron Rosenbaum down to Lafayette Street again. More information here.