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New York Public Library via The Public Theater

Shakespeare on the Go: Inside the Public Theater's Traveling 'Mobile Unit' 

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New York Public Library via The Public Theater

Today, many people consider William Shakespeare’s work to be the epitome of high culture. But when the Bard was alive, he wrote plays for the average person's enjoyment. Keeping this democratic spirit alive centuries later is the Mobile Unit, a lean yet mighty branch of New York City's Public Theater that brings Shakespeare’s plays to underserved communities. They visit prisons, homeless shelters, community centers, and other venues, some of which are located in the region's poorest neighborhoods.

First established in 1957 by Public Theater founder Joseph Papp, the Mobile Unit has changed and evolved over the years, but its main goal—to make Shakespeare accessible to the masses—has remained the same. Papp knew that not everyone had the means to travel to Manhattan to see a show, so the theater pioneer decided to bring the Bard to them: From the late 1950s through the late 1970s, Papp's mobile theater traveled across New York in borrowed Department of Sanitation vehicles, staging free outdoor plays in public parks across the five boroughs. The troupe used a wooden folding stage attached to a truck bed, and portable risers held up to 700 audience members, who may have never seen a Shakespeare play otherwise.

The Public Theater's mobile unit toured off and on throughout the decades, but in 1979, it fell by the wayside: Faced with limited financial resources, the theater decided to devote their money and attention to both the company’s downtown theater space and the Delacorte Theater, the open-air stage in Central Park that has been hosting free Shakespeare in the Park performances since 1954.

In 2010, Barry Edelstein, head of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Initiative, revived the mobile unit for the first time in over 30 years. Just like Papp, Edelstein believed that a traveling theater unit was essential if Shakespeare were to remain accessible to the masses. Even though the Public Theater gave away free Shakespeare tickets and performed inexpensive shows downtown, "the demand for this work has become so high that ... even though there is no economic barrier, there is a time barrier,” Edelstein told The Huffington Post in 2012. “You have to take a day off work, which many people cannot do. There’s also a geographic barrier. The impulse behind free tickets in Central Park is no longer achieving the mission of making access as democratic and widespread as possible.”

Edelstein modeled the rebooted Mobile Unit's basic production style off Ten Thousand Things, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit theater that performs plays for prisons, homeless shelters, and low-income centers, in addition to public audiences. The company operates with a small cast and keeps costumes, props, and sets to a minimum, allowing them to produce low-cost plays while on the move. Instead of performing plays on a stage, actors perform in the middle of a circle of folding chairs—a practical, yet intimate, approach to traveling theater.

"We took our roots and melded it with their methodology, and that's how we got the Mobile Unit today," Stephanie Ybarra, the Public Theater’s director of special artistic projects, tells Mental Floss.

Michelle Hensley, the founder and artistic director of Ten Thousand Things, came to New York to direct the Mobile Unit’s inaugural effort, a touring production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in 2010. Stops included Staten Island’s now-closed Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, the Central High School/Boys & Girls Club of Newark, and the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults, followed by a six-day sit-down run at Judson Memorial Church in the East Village.

Now in its seventh year, the Public Theater’s revived Mobile Unit tours New York by way of van (although the ones provided by the Sanitation Department during Papp's era have long since been abandoned). Actors, crew members, and a director pile into one van, and load a second one with props, costumes, etc. They then travel to venues across New York City and the surrounding counties, where they perform free, stripped-down versions of classic Shakespeare titles like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth.

"We get to go to all these parts of New York, and see [it] in a way I’ve never seen it," actor David Ryan Smith, a four-year veteran of the Mobile Unit who played Malvolio in a recent production of Twelfth Night, tells Mental Floss. People are "hungry for storytelling, especially in the prisons."

Joan Marcus, via The Public Theater

Mobile Unit actors perform in gyms, multipurpose rooms, and classrooms, on a portable “stage”—a 14-by-14 foot carpet, decorated to reflect the show’s theme. (For example, the one used in Twelfth Night had a pink and teal Art Deco-inspired design.) There are no stage lights nor any extraneous stage accessories; performers wear a “base costume” and change into secondary ensembles behind offstage clothing racks. Onlookers sit in a circle, transforming the space into a makeshift theater in the round. Audience sizes range anywhere from 15 to 110 people, depending on the venue’s capacity.

The Mobile Unit typically offers two free, three-week tours per year—one in the spring, another in the fall—followed by a three-week, paid sit-down performance at The Public's theater in downtown Manhattan. This spring, the Mobile Unit celebrated its 60th anniversary; to commemorate the milestone, the Public offered free tickets to Twelfth Night’s sit-down show, which ran from April 24 through May 14. Members of the public won tickets through a mobile or in-person lottery, and community organizations unable to host a visit from the Mobile Unit were given tickets to each performance.

The Public Theater performs Shakespeare plays in their original language, but they're not afraid to modernize a production, or to put their own spin on it. Saheem Ali, who directed the Mobile Unit’s recent production of Twelfth Night, wanted to make the production feel "accessible and relatable" to an audience, he tells Mental Floss, and to "speak to our contemporary world." So to explore themes like immigration and identity, Ali set his version of the Bard's classic comedy in the 1990s, in a Miami-inspired city.

During this time, Ali recalls, the "wet foot, dry foot" policy still existed, "where the U.S. government basically said that if anyone fleeing Cuba was trying to come over to the U.S.—if they were caught with a dry foot, meaning they made it to dry land, they would be granted citizenship automatically; and if they were caught with a wet foot—meaning they were caught when they were in the water—they would be sent back to Cuba ... As for Viola and Sebastian, what if they’re coming from Cuba? What if they’re trying to make it to dry land?" (In early 2017, President Barack Obama ended the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, more than 20 years after it was first instated by Bill Clinton.)

The Mobile Unit's production of Twelfth Night presented Viola as a young Cuban immigrant who washes ashore after a shipwreck. Believing her twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned, she takes advantage of the policy and forges a new life in the dazzling city of Illyria, Florida. In Illyria, Viola disguises her gender, speaks in English, and pretends to be a young man named Cesario. Along the way, she secures a job with a rich duke, falls into a convoluted romantic triangle, gets embroiled in a duel, and ultimately finds true love.

“Viola has this line early in the play where she says, 'Conceal me what I am,’ and traditionally, that is meant to [refer to her] gender,” Ali says. “She wants to conceal the fact that she’s a girl, and pretend to be a boy. So I was curious: What if that means more? What if she’s also trying to hide where she’s from, and what her accent is like? What if she’s trying to hide more than just her gender? What if she’s trying to hide her identity as well?"

Ali’s production was filled with music—rap, house, and pop—that recalled Miami’s vibrant culture during the 1990s. The “stage” was decorated with blow-up palm trees and much of the text —including the scene in which Viola and Sebastian finally discover they're both alive—was translated into Spanish.

"The thing about Shakespeare is that it can be intimidating," Ali says. "It can feel like it only belongs to a certain class of people, or a certain education level of people, and the Mobile Unit has always taken away that barrier and made it feel completely understandable and relevant to all kinds of audiences."

From the Rikers Island Correctional Facility in the Bronx to the Brownsville Recreation Center, no two venues where the Mobile Unit has performed Twelfth Night are exactly alike. Each has its own unique challenges and benefits—but many of them are “often neglected, and some of them are designed to crush and oppress the human spirit,” Ybarra says. Shakespeare's works, she says, are transformative for these underserved communities: They make them laugh, cry, and above all, remember their own essential humanity.

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entertainment
12 Fast Facts About Magnum, P.I.
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CBS

Magnum, P.I. was appointment television in a world before peak TV made that sort of thing commonplace. Starring Tom Selleck and set against a lush Hawaiian backdrop, the series was a triumph thanks to its tense action, humor, and eclectic cast of characters. Selleck’s Thomas Magnum shed the typical action hero mold for something far more relatable, and for eight seasons, the series was among the most popular on the air. To bring you back to a time when all you needed was a Hawaiian shirt and a Detroit Tigers cap to be a star, here are 12 facts about Magnum, P.I.

1. THERE'S A STRONG HAWAII FIVE-0 CONNECTION.

Magnum, P.I. made its premiere on CBS in 1980, the same year the network’s long-running Hawaii Five-0 was taking its final bow. Magnum’s location was picked because the network didn't want to let its Hawaiian production facilities go to waste, so the Tom Selleck-led show filmed many of its indoor scenes on the old Hawaii Five-0 soundstage.

The two shows are even set in the same universe, as Thomas Magnum would make references to Detective Steve McGarrett, who was famously played by Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-0. Though Lord never did accept the offer to make a cameo, the link between the two shows was never broken.

2. PLAYING MAGNUM COST TOM SELLECK THE ROLE OF INDIANA JONES.

Can you imagine Indiana Jones with a mustache? Or Tom Selleck without one? Well one of those almost became a reality as Selleck was the top choice for the swashbuckling archaeologist when production on Raiders of the Lost Ark began. Unfortunately, the actor’s contractual commitment to Magnum, P.I. prevented him from taking the role.

In a cruel twist of fate, a writers strike subsequently delayed filming on the first season of Magnum, theoretically freeing up Selleck for the role—if he hadn’t already dropped out of consideration. Though the part will forever be linked to Harrison Ford, the ever-excitable George Lucas described Selleck’s screentest as “really, really good.”

3. THE THEME SONG MADE THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.

If you think the Magnum, P.I. theme is a miracle of network television, you’re not alone. The song, composed by Mike Post, reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1982—a rare feat for a TV theme. Post is also the man behind hit TV songs like The A-Team, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, The Greatest American Hero, and plenty of other ‘80s and ‘90s staples. He’s probably best known as the man behind the ubiquitous “dun, dun” sting from Law & Order. (The Who's Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about Post's theme work, title "Mike Post Theme," which was released on the band's 2006 album, Endless Wire.)

The Magnum, P.I. tune you’re bopping your head to right now wasn’t the original opening song, though. For the first handful of episodes, including the pilot, the series had a much less memorable intro song.

4. THE SHOW FEATURED SOME OF ORSON WELLES’S LAST PERFORMANCES.

Orson Welles’s final years were a blur of voiceover work and jug-o’-wine commercials, and one of his last jobs was acting as the voice of Robin Masters—the mysterious author who lends Magnum his guesthouse in exchange for security services. Masters is only heard, never fully seen, in the show, leading to plenty of conspiracy theories over his actual identity (some fans still think he was Higgins all along).

Occasionally Masters would be seen only briefly and from behind. For those rare moments, actor Bruce Atkinson would provide the necessary body parts for filming. Though his voice was only heard rarely during the series’ first five seasons, Welles was scheduled to play the role for as long as the show was on the air, but the actor’s death in 1985 brought a premature end to his tenure.

5. THERE WAS ALMOST A QUANTUM LEAP CROSSOVER.

Donald Bellisario’s TV empire is one of the industry’s most impressive feats, resulting in multiple top-rated shows and critical favorites. But getting two of his most popular series to cross over proved to be more trouble than anyone would have anticipated.

In order to secure a fifth season for Quantum Leap, Bellisario suggested that Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett character “leap” into the body of Thomas Magnum in the final moments of season four, leading to the following year’s premiere. But there was a snag with securing Selleck; his publicist even claimed he was never formally approached about the subject, saying, "We’re hoping. It’s on hold. We don’t have an answer.” The idea was soon dropped, and a fifth season of Quantum Leap went on without any help from Magnum.

Magnum, P.I. was off the air at this point, so Selleck was already on different projects. Some test footage of Bakula as Thomas Magnum was shot and shown at a Quantum Leap fan convention, but that’s as far as viewers got.

6. CROSSOVERS WITH MURDER, SHE WROTE AND SIMON & SIMON DID HAPPEN.

VINCE BUCCI/AFP/Getty Images

A crossover between Magnum and Murder, She Wrote? That did happen, oddly enough. The event took place in the Magnum, P.I. episode "Novel Connection" during season seven and Murder, She Wrote’s “Magnum on Ice.” In the story, Magnum is arrested for murder, and the only person who can clear his name is Jessica Fletcher, played as always by Dame Angela Lansbury.

During its third season, Magnum also crossed over with his fellow CBS private investigators on the show Simon & Simon. Both series ran simultaneously on CBS for almost the entirety of the ‘80s, and in this episode the trio banded together to secure a Hawaiian artifact that supposedly had a death curse attached to it.

7. THE SMITHSONIAN PRESERVED MAGNUM’S SIGNATURE HAWAIIAN SHIRT.

If you’re not old enough to appreciate what a phenomenon Magnum, P.I. was, consider this: Selleck’s iconic Hawaiian shirt, Detroit Tigers hat, and insignia ring from the show were all donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The objects joined other culturally significant TV relics from over the years, including Archie Bunker’s chair from All in the Family, the Lone Ranger’s mask, and a Kermit the Frog puppet. Perhaps just as big of an honor, Selleck found himself in the Mustache Hall of Fame for the memorable lip fuzz he sported throughout the series. His digital plaque reads:

“Throughout his acting career, Selleck’s charismatic grin, unflinching masculinity and robust, stocky lipholstery have made him the stuff of legend.”

8. IT PRODUCED A FAILED BACKDOOR PILOT.

The first season of Magnum, P.I. was about more than just establishing Tom Selleck as a household name; CBS executives also wanted an episode to act as a backdoor pilot for an action series starring Erin Gray. In the episode “J. ‘Digger’ Doyle,” viewers meet Gray as the titular Doyle, a security expert that Magnum calls on to help thwart a potential assassination attempt against Robin Masters.

Though the episode went off without a hitch, the spinoff never materialized. In fact, Gray never reappeared on the series after that.

9. MAGNUM DIES IN THE PREMATURE SERIES FINALE “LIMBO.”

By the time season seven rolled around, it seemed that Magnum, P.I. had run its course—so much so that the network had planned for that to be the show’s sendoff.

In the season’s final episode, “Limbo,” Magnum winds up in critical condition after taking a bullet during a warehouse shootout. The episode gets Dickensian as Magnum, caught between life and death, drops in on all his closest friends (and supporting cast) as a specter no one can see or hear. He makes peace with everyone around him before he apparently walks off into heaven, punctuated by the John Denver song “Looking For Space.”

To the surprise of the cast, crew, and fans, the series was renewed for a shortened eighth season, meaning Magnum had to come back from the beyond and continue his adventures for another 13 episodes.

10. THE REAL SERIES FINALE IS ONE OF THE MOST-WATCHED OF ALL TIME.

When Magnum, P.I. actually ended, it ended with one of the most-watched finales of all time. It currently sits as the fifth most-watched series finale, not far behind the likes of Cheers, M*A*S*H, Friends, and Seinfeld. The grand total of viewers? 50.7 million.

11. SELLECK AND TOM CLANCY FAILED TO GET A MAGNUM MOVIE OFF THE GROUND IN THE ‘90s.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rumors of a Magnum, P.I. movie have been rumbling since shortly after the credits rolled on the series' final episode (and likely well before that). It got close in the ‘90s when Selleck teamed with famed novelist Tom Clancy to pitch a Magnum movie to Universal.

Clancy was a big fan of the show and was ready to crack the story with Selleck, but nothing ever came of it. Selleck later recounted:

"We got together, and I went to Universal, and I said ‘It's time we could do a series of feature films.’ They were very interested, and I had Tom, who wanted to do the story, and I had this package put together, but Universal's the only studio that could make it, and they went through three ownership changes in the '90s, and I think that was the real window for Magnum."

12. WE MIGHT SEE A SEQUEL SERIES FOCUSING ON MAGNUM’S DAUGHTER.

The time for a Selleck-led Magnum, P.I. movie may have passed, but there’s still hope for the franchise. In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that ABC had a pilot in the works for a Magnum sequel, which would put an end to the constant reports of a full-fledged reboot or movie adaptation of the show.

According to the site, the show would follow Magnum's daughter, Lily, "who returns to Hawaii to take up the mantle of her father's PI firm.” It remains to be seen whether or not the project will ever come to fruition.

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5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
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At its best, Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’ Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY

John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of this year and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In June, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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