The Public Theatre sets out to hold a four-part radio play instead of its annual Shakespeare in the Park festival.
Owing to the social distancing measures put in place because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, The Public Theater of New York City has canceled its sixty-year-old annual tradition of Shakespeare in the Park festival and instead teamed up with U.S radio station, WNYC, to turn William Shakespeare’s 1595 play Richard II into a four-part radio play. The serial broadcast will be aired from 13 July to 16 July and will also be available in the form of a podcast. Directed by Saheem Ali, the radio rendition will feature much of the same actors who were scheduled to perform in Central Park, including André Holland in the title role along with Phylicia Rashad as the Duchess of Gloucester. The Public Theatre also informed that PBS will be re-broadcasting a filmed version of the theater’s 2019 production of the Kenny Leon directed Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing which had previously aired as a part of the Great Performance series.
“I came to my senses and realized that it’s not my job to make theater if the conditions are right to make theater, but to keep making theater no matter what the conditions are,” said the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, who, in April had announced the cancellations of the Richard II production as well as the musical adaptation of the playwright’s As You Like It. “It was easy to see we couldn’t afford to let Shakespeare in the Park vanish completely from the cultural scene.” The director said, “These are not the ideal ways — we would like to be in the Delacorte [Theatre]— but in the absence of that, it feels like the right thing to do.”
While casting decisions were made long before the USA fell under national unrest over racial injustice, the Richard II cast predominantly consists of actors of color, and the Much Ado About Nothing cast is all black, this will now take on a new significance. The Richard II production will be stand with the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, the Much Ado About Nothing production will be coupled with a documentary about the history of black actors at the festival of Shakespeare in the Park, reported Michael Paulson of The New York Times. “Particularly at this moment, when the entire country is focused on institutional racism, this is a great moment to be highlighting these plays,” said director Eustis. “And, as always with Shakespeare, there are incredible resonances that come out and grab you.”
Like other non-profit theaters, The Public Theatre was also struck by the economic repercussions of the pandemic. In April, until it got a $4 million loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Eustis had announced a plan to lay off 70% of the theater’s full-time, permanent staff. According to him, the money will run out by 17th July, and without further government support, they will need to do furloughs. While Eustis isn’t ready to cancel the theater’s seasons or postpone the productions until the next year, he refused to make any prediction as to when the Public Theatre would return to staging live plays in front of an audience. “We will be producing work this fall, but my bet is that it will be mostly virtual, and after that, nobody knows”, he said.
Featured Image Via Canva