Seeker of Hard-Won Joy

Director Lear deBessonet has fused art and activism into a big-hearted, deeply attentive and seriously playful aesthetic

By Helen Shaw

Lear deBessonet is trying to solve a problem. At one point in Shakespeare’s late romance The Winter’s Tale, 16 years pass in the blink of an eye, and the moment calls for capital-T theatricality. What would be the right choice? Should she have the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company swarm onto the Delacorte Theater stage, as it did at a critical juncture last year in deBessonet’s production of The Tempest? Should she fling her entire 200-person cast into flash-forward, creating an ensemble number to shake the floorboards? Or should she just dress the Mayor of New York up like a clock and ask him to make an announcement? It’s not your typical directing dilemma.

Since she started the Public Theater’s Public Works program, this is the sort of quandary deBessonet grapples with on a regular basis. Now in its second year, Public Works produces free, massive, community-cast musicals in Central Park’s Delacorte amphitheatre—a sort of postlude to the Public’s main Shakespeare in the Park season—while maintaining a year-round program of readings, workshops, classes and arts projects with participant groups in every one of New York’s five boroughs. This summer’s project, ironically, is The Winter’s Tale, which is trying to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle splash made by last year’s inaugural Tempest.

Outside of Public Works, deBessonet, 33, has a growing reputation as a music-theatre innovator and has been swooned over far and wide for her dazzling, music-soaked 2013 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan. It took home stacks of Obies and Lortel awards, and the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood, reviewing the show’s transfer from LaMaMa E.T.C. to the Public, kvelled, saying, “You may be taken aback to find how purely entertaining [Brecht’s] work can be when it is delivered with invention and a spirit of inquisitive exuberance.”

In fact, turn around in New York these days and you’ll bump into a musical deBessonet is part of creating or reinventing: At this summer’s New York City Center Encores! Off-Center series, she directed a concert staging of Pump Boys and Dinettes, and she is busy helping to develop Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s new musical Alice by Heart, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

At first glance, deBessonet seems to have almost ridiculously catholic tastes. What connects these many pursuits—the indie-rock-infused Brecht, the Broadway-pedigreed musical, the community-cast civic drama? She would argue that they are all fruits of the same tree; each in its own way addresses her overriding concerns about how we create our living community—how we model right action and envision a better reality.

“It’s all the same impulse,” she says. “The musical is our fantasy of an ordered world.”

DeBessonet has an unusual background for a theatre director. Raised in Baton Rouge, La., she saw no professional theatre productions before the age of 17. (This didn’t stop her, however, from directing a “fully realized” production of Annie at her eighth birthday party. The family dog is not remembered as having been enthusiastic.) She was also raised as a devout Christian, completely invested in the millennialism of evangelical faith. When she was just 10, for instance, she underwent a terrifying and intense experience: An uncanny growling emanated from the Earth, and the house shook. Young Lear’s faith was firm, so she packed a bag, ready for the Rapture. Then the shaking stopped. The washing machine had just run an off-balance load.

Listen to deBessonet tell this story, and watch her dissolve in helpless laughter—slightly aghast at her remembered self. But another story from her days in a youth ministry sobers her right up. When she was a thrilled and idealistic 13-year-old on a missionary trip to rural Mexico, she found herself asking lifelong Catholics whether they had “accepted Jesus.” What was she doing? These were grandmothers with long lives lived in faith. She had an out-of-body moment; the ground shifted; and she came suddenly alive to the absurdity of such so-called “outreach.” It may have been the moment that turned her from a preacher to a listener.

Later, when deBessonet first came to New York, she underwent what she now refers to as a “deep spiritual crisis.” At first she was her own theatrical community of one—while getting her degree from the University of Virginia in political and social thought, she had directed up a storm. But she moved to New York without the comforting built-in clique of the theatre grad student. She trained with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, working as her assistant director, and almost immediately began devising her own work in a company of her own creation.

I have known the Lear deBessonet that emerged from that experience, and her subsequent oeuvre, for more than a decade. That work includes an atmospheric collage piece called The Eliots; a drifting meditation on Jerusalem Syndrome called transFigures; and a darkly lyrical staging of Deborah Stein’s exploration of the invention of the X-ray, Bone Portraits. Mentored (and sometimes employed) by such theatre visionaries as Bogart, Marianne Weems and Martha Clarke, deBessonet cultivated an aesthetic you could describe as documentary, abstract, metaphysical, dancerly—a bit like what might have happened had, say, Pina Bausch made The Laramie Project on a shoestring.

Then, in 2007, things shifted. “I had two different trajectories—my artistic work and my social concerns,” she explains, “and they were completely separate things.” One of her justice-minded projects, a free-ticketing program she created at the Culture Project called Tickets for the People, changed that—in part because it was a disaster. “That was very, very painful,” she recalls, “It was a catalyzing failure. Yes, it technically succeeded, in that people were brought to see shows, but we didn’t come close to the intended results. Sitting among them, I could feel how we were just amplifying their feelings of alienation.”

So deBessonet decided she didn’t want to keep her passions separate anymore. “It all had to be one thing,” she reasons. She deliberately wed the two trajectories in 2009 by partnering with Philadelphia’s Broad Street Ministry to make Quixote, a gypsy-punk version of Man of La Mancha with a 45-strong cast that combined professional theatre actors and the church’s community—some of whom were homeless. Playwright Lucy Thurber adapted the text, making some scenes removable in case transient cast members weren’t able to get to the show. The result was colorful, puppet-filled, ebullient and moving—much of its success thanks to the music provided by the anarchist Christian punk band the Psalters, who stamped the ground, yelled about uplift and growled out the kind of music that makes you want to build a barn.

An ethical change led naturally to an aesthetic one. Some of the underpinnings of her new approach came from director Michelle Hensley, with whom deBessonet has maintained a long and close relationship. At Hensley’s Minneapolis company Ten Thousand Things, which takes its work directly into prisons and shelters, the emphasis is on the richness of diverse audiences. Hensley taught deBessonet that big, ambitious stories—ones set in fairy tale or fable-like worlds—allow audiences to participate on equal footing and actually give the people the kind of performance experience they’re looking for.

“In other words,” explains deBessonet, “people make the assumption that if a person has been in prison, he’ll want to see a show about prison. Yet if you go to the theatre with people who are actually in communities struggling with serious issues, like homelessness or the failure of the mental health system—what they want from theatre is a place to be a human.” She’s unapologetic about her embrace of populist escapism. “‘Escape’ in a homeless shelter isn’t just fun. It’s hard-won joy.”

After Quixote, though, she had a moment of doubt—not about the show (“I knew that was what I was born to do,” she avows), but about what the logical next step would be. Separately, she had begun working with Todd Almond, a gifted composer and musical-theatre writer whose work as a music director she had seen in a semi-legendary version of Hair, staged by Theater Mitu at NYU in 2006. Their connection almost didn’t happen: Almond concedes that “when she called, I blew her off for a while. But Lear is incredibly persistent, so I relented. I remember,” he laughs, “I was getting dressed for our coffee and thinking, ‘Only give her 15 minutes!’ And then after two minutes, I sat up straight...and fixed my hair...and got a glimpse of what was sitting across the table from me.”

Their initial collaboration was On the Levee, a Marcus Gardley–penned musical about a horrific series of racism-enabled disasters during the great flood of 1927 in Greenville, Miss. The pair loved working together. As Almond puts it, “We don’t share all the same larger goals, which is almost a help. We complement each other—when she steps forward, I step back.” When San Diego’s Old Globe Theater commissioned deBessonet to create a piece about its community, she shrank from making something bleak about urban decay. Instead, she met as many San Diegans as she could and started building relationships between the theatre and local arts organizations. The Old Globe’s gorgeous open-air venue is housed in old World’s Fair structures, which inspired her to look for stories that encompass the whole world, and to seek out ways to contain many worlds in one. Thus was born her and Almond’s epic version of The Odyssey (see AT’s Jan. ’12 issue “Strategies” column, “Journey to a New World”).

With Quixote, deBessonet had figured out a crucial first ingredient: the intermixing of actors and non-actors from all walks of life. With The Odyssey, though, she uncovered a sturdy scaffolding for the civic drama of which she’s now champion and chief revivalist. She and Almond wound up with a pageant form that required 181 people—much to the Old Globe’s shock and (slightly terrified) delight—by imitating the structure of a parade. As they debated how to evoke the different worlds Odysseus visits on his long, long voyage home, deBessonet and Almond hit upon a question: What if, instead of a million costume changes, they simply found the perfect people to “be” that world? For instance, Culture Shock, a local hip-hop crew, could play the “super-athletic Phaeacians,” because they were already better athletes than any professional actors the artistic team could train. Each opportunity for spectacle, they decided, could be solved separately and on its own terms: A local gospel choir would play Athena, and—in the sweetest, darkest evocation of death I’ve seen—a swarm of moon-faced eight-year-olds from San Diego Junior Theatre became the Underworld. Our shades, apparently, are our more innocent selves.

The team also discovered a way to further exploit Almond’s talents. At first, there were no plans to have him onstage, but the creators were getting worried about the sheer traffic control of the thing. Recalls Almond, “We kept asking, ‘What if everything goes wrong?!’ which led us to, ‘What if I were up there conducting? I could say a few things.’ And suddenly the idea turned into, ‘Oh, you’re a narrator!’” In short order, Almond became a dapper, charming emcee, breaking the ancient mood by chatting informally with the audience. It somehow made all the disparate elements cohere—by the logic of vaudeville, perhaps.

By show’s end, the razzle-dazzle was subsumed in almost tangible waves of love from the audience. It was as though Oberammergau had traded in the Christ story for a modern take on a classic text: Almond and deBessonet had reinvented the secular passion play.

Did this new approach result in an amplified poetics elsewhere in deBessonet’s work? Certainly 2013’s Good Person (produced by the Foundry Theatre at La MaMa, and later remounted at the Public) was tight and crisp as a military drum, and it too had an adorable child, a profusion of styles, a sense of joyful uplift and a fairytale quality. Adam Feldman at Time Out New York said, “In Brecht’s rigorously topsy-turvy catechism, goodness in a vicious world is impossible—or rather, it can only be achieved by a kind of theatrical magic...just what this charmingly pointed parable delivers.”

At La MaMa, the audience was seated where people typically place the stage, so that they looked back at risers, marching upward in the lofty wooden space; on them stood little cardboard houses in clusters; far up right there was a space for the band, Cesar Alvarez’s the Lisps, who contributed ecstatic, folk-y songs to the proceedings.

The play’s star actor, the drag artist-musician-performer Taylor Mac, did shattering work as Shen Te, seeming earnest and vulnerable as the woman too good to succeed in a wicked world, then somehow even more vulnerable as Shen Te’s alter-ego, her ruthless male “cousin” Shui Ta. Among the ensemble, there was a sense of something very delicate but very strong; they might have been children who’d been left to invent a game in a room. Says Mac, “Lear has a very clear vision about what she wants. But in the rehearsal room, she asks the actors to bring a great deal to the table—she doesn’t leave them alone, necessarily, but she leaves room for their input, then she edits. She lets us play.” Mac’s plaintive voice, Pierrot-like innocence and long history of New Drag performance became the creative heart of the work, which borrowed his complex pastiche sensibility to both lighten and darken the play.

“My ultimate compass is unearthing the ‘substructure’ of any work, its deep genre,” deBessonet says. “What does the piece want to be? I learned this term from Bartlett Sher, who I assisted when he directed The Barber of Seville at the Met. I tell him it’s the greatest tool he ever gave me. Looking for substructure forces an act of deep listening, which then allows the design, casting and cutting decisions to focus on that DNA, to reveal it.”

In the case of Good Person, the substructure turned out to be commedia and clowning. Hence Matt Saunders’s set. “It’s a poor urban environment, but it has to be a fable, it has to be magical. We see it as a child would imagine a poor village, or perhaps as the gods see us.”

DeBessonet insists that Brecht wove this playfulness into Good Person’s weft: “He was an entertainer! He loved musical comedy, he loved Charlie Chaplin. What you want is a sense of joy that loosens you up so much that you can be knocked off balance by the spiritual emergency of the play.”

While making Good Person, deBessonet was simultaneously gearing up for another 200-person pageant, this one the first Public Works production: The Tempest. She and Almond were collaborating on a to-the-bone edit of the play (it needed to run just 90 minutes), and Almond was composing songs and writing banter at a terrific rate. The Public had accepted her proposal to create Public Works on an unprecedented scale, committing to lengthy community relationships; for the previous year, she had been meeting with partner organizations, including the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn, where she taught Shakespeare to seniors; the alternative-to-incarceration program Fortune Society, where she led acting workshops; Manhattan’s Children’s Aid Society; DreamYard Project, the Bronx art center; and the union Domestic Workers United. These partner groups would become the backbone of the Tempest community ensemble.

This engagement with community partners continues to grow. Actor and teaching artist Tia James, for instance, has been working on Shakespeare with students of all ages at DreamYard. The Tempest blew her away, she says: “Man, I don’t know if I can put it in words. I was completely shocked in the best way—it was so gorgeous to see all those different people. It was just triumphant.” She and her students are ready for more. “I’m confident they’re going into Winter’s Tale prepared—they know how to break it down, how to understand it.”

As The Tempest’s dramaturg, I had a ringside seat to deBessonet’s strategy—and it was fascinating to see how much the participants thrilled to the idea that the project had a precedent. In 1916, we learned, the progressive poet Percy MacKaye staged a mass-participation pageant at Harlem’s Lewisohn Stadium called Caliban by the Yellow Sands, a huge “community masque” that MacKaye hoped would revive the form (2,500 hundred New Yorkers took part; 15,000 thousand came). MacKaye and his fellows in the Silver Age historical pageantry movement understood the heady mix of spectacle and inclusion; they saw it as a way to build civic foundation, to tie American identity to its own landscape and the “city beautiful.” By radically increasing the number onstage, pageantry elides the line between spectator and performer.

Watching The Tempest, you felt the power dynamic changing—the usual imbalance of a few actors facing down a huge audience became something more like an exchange of equals. The production seemed to evoke a sort of ideal New York—an island “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” DeBessonet echoed MacKaye, her cultural forebear, and the Public Works community thrilled to the purpose-driven idea of the deeper event.

When MacKaye had wanted to perform his Caliban in Central Park, he was turned down, and frequently I heard Tempest cast members talking about how they were finally making that injustice right. The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis also sees Public Works as the logical continuation of Joseph Papp’s populist dream. “There’s tremendous external pressure to turn the theatre into this glittering object that is then purchased by the wealthy, therefore validating their cultural ‘with-it-ness.’ And that kind of commodification of the theatre is horrifying to me,” Eustis says. “It’s not what we’re here to do. What Public Works does is definitely art. It’s not just some program. These are works of theatrical art that completely break down the boundary between who is making it and who is watching it, and that return the act of making and watching and participating in theatre to a set of relationships, and not to an object.”

But don’t call it a mission. DeBessonet’s religiosity has undergone radical changes during her adulthood, and those changes help explain some of her theatrical methods and convictions. Those deep readjustments have made her reject any language that calls her work “a mission,” with all the ugly post-colonial associations that the word conjures up. She’s intent on clearing up this misunderstanding. “The ‘mission’ concept,” deBessonet protests, “doesn’t work here, because it implies that there’s just one person with the resources—one person ‘saving,’ one person giving.”

Yet Eustis suggests there is still a “spiritual” foundation to her artistic approach: “There is a belief in the essential beauty of every individual soul and the idea that every person is infinitely valuable.” Zeus, one of the foundation stones of the ensemble, explained their aims to a documentary crew in even grander terms: “This is our proposal to humanity.”

In these civic dramas, the work is made in partnership, rather than as a “charitable” act. DeBessonet emphasizes, “We use professional theatre actors alongside a gloriously vivid community ensemble, bringing their humanity, their honesty, their realness. It actually solves so many directorial problems for me, because they are non-actors—they couldn’t mug if you asked them to! In many ways, they’re actually ideal performers.” The cameo groups, local performers of excellence like Calpulli or Eliot Feld's Ballet Tech, add their own virtuosity. “We need these groups because they have charismatic lightning to solve our dramaturgical problems,” the director insists.

The Tempest wound up being more cohesive than The Odyssey, perhaps because the original play—itself a masque—seems to invite musical interference. Broadway stars (Laura Benanti, Norm Lewis) moved among those who had never been onstage before, including three adorable members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance who ferried Miranda to her wedding in a big cardboard cab. Composer/lyricist/co-adaptor Almond was again our host, but Tempest afforded him the perfect tricksy, lightsome, ever-vanishing role in Ariel, Prospero’s trusty spirit of the air.

This year’s show, The Winter’s Tale, didn’t have such an obvious space for him. Even as Almond was taking on the task of writing a second musical Shakespeare adaptation in two years, he recalls asking, “Who can I play? There’s suddenly a list of criteria—I have to be able to talk to the audience, I have to be able to use contemporary language, I have to be able to disappear from the story.” Winter’s Tale has other challenges built in—it’s less frequently performed, for example, and fewer people know the story. But one thing is familiar—Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

That became the lightbulb. “Oh!” said Almond. “I’m the guy who dies! I’ll be Antigonus, and I’m dead. Then I can tell the Tale, saying, ‘Let me show you how that happened—let’s go back in time.’”

For both Almond and deBessonet, The Winter’s Tale is a story that grapples profoundly with time, with regret, with the ability to undo seemingly irrevocable actions. If Tempest was about opening a heart gripped by revenge, The Winter’s Tale is about the impossible, miraculous ability of bad fortune to turn into good. And that’s a nice optimism to hold in front of you as you head into a project as difficult, as work-intensive and as sheerly exhausting as the civic drama. The scale ought to be daunting, but Almond doesn’t even flinch. DeBessonet has her own charismatic lightning, and maybe that is the actual unifying force among her many projects.

“If I were faced with pitch darkness in front of me,” Almond says, “I would follow Lear in.” He pauses. “She sheds light as she goes.”

Helen Shaw is a New York City–based theatre critic.