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

New York Public Library via The Public Theater
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.

Disney's Most Magical Destinations Have Been Reimagined as Vintage Travel Posters

UpgradedPoints.com
UpgradedPoints.com

Many of the iconic settings of animated Disney movies were modeled after real places around the world. Ussé Castle in France’s Loire Valley, for example, is widely rumored to have been the inspiration behind the original Sleeping Beauty story. (Although the castle in the movie more closely resembles Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle.) Likewise, the fictional island in Moana was made to look like Samoa, and the Sultan’s palace in Aladdin shares some similarities with India's Taj Mahal.

If you’ve ever dreamed of exploring Agrabah or Neverland, then you’ll probably enjoy getting lost in these Disney-inspired travel posters from the designers at UpgradedPoints.com, an online resource that helps individuals maximize their credit card travel rewards. Only one of the posters features a real destination ("Beautiful France"), but these illustrations let you get one step closer to scaling Pride Rock or plumbing the depths of Atlantica.

All of the images are rendered in a vintage style with enticing slogans attached—much like the exotic travel posters that were prevalent in the 1930s.

“A few of our designers wanted to capture that longing to experience the true locations of these fantastic films, and the inner child in all of us couldn’t resist seeing how they interpreted the locations of their favorite films,” UpgradedPoints.com writes. “The results are breathtaking and make us wish we could fall into our favorite Disney movies.”

Keep scrolling to see the posters, and for more travel inspiration, read up on eight real-life locations that inspired Disney places (plus one that didn't).

A Disney-inspired poster of France
UpgradedPoints.com

An Atlantica travel poster
UpgradedPoints.com

A Disney-inspired poster
UpgradedPoints.com

A Disney-inspired poster
UpgradedPoints.com

A Lion King travel poster
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A Neverland travel poster
UpgradedPoints.com

11 Memorable Facts About Cats the Musical

Mike Clarke/Getty Images
Mike Clarke/Getty Images

“It was better than Cats!” Decades after Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed musical opened on Broadway on October 7, 1982, this tongue-in-cheek idiom remains a part of our lexicon (thanks to Saturday Night Live). Although the feline extravaganza divided the critics, it won over audiences of all ages and became an industry juggernaut—one that single-handedly generated more than $3 billion for New York City's economy—and that was before it made a return to the Great White Way in 2016. In honor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday on March 22, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

1. The work that Cats the musical is based on was originally going to include dogs.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939, is a collection of feline-themed poems written by the great T. S. Eliot. A whimsical, lighthearted effort, the volume has been delighting cat fanciers for generations—and it could have become just as big of a hit with dog lovers, too. At first, Eliot envisioned the book as an assemblage of canine- and tabby-related poems. However, he came to believe that “dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats.” (Spoken like a true ailurophile.) According to his publisher, Eliot decided that “it would be improper to wrap [felines] up with dogs” and barely even mentioned them in the finished product.

For his part, Andrew Lloyd Webber has described his attitude towards cats as “quite neutral.” Still, the composer felt that Eliot’s rhymes could form the basis of a daring, West End-worthy soundtrack. It seemed like an irresistible challenge. “I wanted to set that exciting verse to music,” he explained. “When I [had] written with lyricists in the past … the lyrics have been written to the music. So I was intrigued to see whether I could write a complete piece the other way ‘round.”

2. "Memory" was inspired by a poem that T.S. Eliot never finished.

In 1980, Webber approached T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, to ask for her blessing on the project. She not only said “yes,” but provided the songwriter with some helpful notes and letters that her husband had written about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—including a half-finished, eight-line poem called “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.” Feeling that it was too melancholy for children, Eliot decided to omit the piece from Practical Cats. But the dramatic power of the poem made it irresistible for Webber and Trevor Nunn, the show’s original director. By combining lines from “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat” with those of another Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” they laid the foundation for what became the powerful ballad “Memory.” A smash hit within a smash hit, this showstopper has been covered by such icons as Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow.

3. Dame Judi Dench left the cast of Cats when her Achilles tendon snapped.

One of Britain’s most esteemed actresses, Dench was brought in to play Grizabella for Cats’s original run on the West End. Then, about three weeks into rehearsals, she was going through a scene with co-star Wayne Sleep (Mr. Mistoffelees) when disaster struck. “She went, ‘You kicked me!’” Sleep recalls in the above video. “And I said, ‘I didn’t, actually, are you alright?’” She wasn’t. Somehow, Dench had managed to tear her Achilles tendon. As a last-minute replacement, Elaine Paige of Evita fame was brought aboard. In an eerie coincidence, Paige had heard a recorded version of “Memory” on a local radio station less than 24 hours before she was asked to play Grizabella. Also, an actual black cat had crossed her path that day. Spooky.

4. To finance the show, Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up mortgaging his house.

Although Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously won great acclaim as one of the creative minds behind Jesus Christ Superstar and other hit shows, Cats had a hard time finding investors. According to choreographer Gillian Lynne, “[it] was very, very difficult to finance because everyone said ‘A show about cats? You must be raving mad.’” In fact, the musical fell so far short of its fundraising goals that Webber ended up taking out a second mortgage on his home to help get Cats the musical off the ground.

5. When Cats the musical came to Broadway, its venue got a huge makeover.

Cats made its West End debut on May 11, 1981. Seventeen months later, a Broadway production of the musical launched what was to become an 18-year run at the Winter Garden Theatre. But before the show could open, some major adjustments had to be made to the venue. Cats came with an enormous, sprawling set which was far too large for the theatre’s available performing space. To make some more room, the stage had to be expanded. Consequently, several rows of orchestra seats were removed, along with the Winter Garden’s proscenium arch. And that was just the beginning. For Grizabella’s climactic ascent into the Heaviside Layer on a giant, levitating tire, the crew installed a hydraulic lift in the orchestra pit and carved a massive hole through the auditorium ceiling. Finally, the theater’s walls were painted black to set the proper mood. After Cats closed in 2000, the original look of the Winter Garden was painstakingly restored—at a cost of $8 million.

6. Cats the musical set longevity records on both sides of the Atlantic.

The original London production took its final bow on May 11, 2002, exactly 21 years after the show had opened—which, at the time, made Cats the longest-running musical in the West End’s history. (It would lose that title to Les Miserables in 2006.) Across the pond, the show was performed at the Winter Garden for the 6138th time on June 19, 1997, putting Cats ahead of A Chorus Line as the longest-running show on Broadway. To celebrate, a massive outdoor celebration was held between 50th and 51st streets, complete with a laser light show and an exclusive after-party for Cats alums.

7. One theatergoer sued the show for $6 million.

Like Hair, Cats involves a lot of performer-audience interaction. See it live, and you might just spot a leotard-clad actor licking himself near your seat before the curtain goes up. In some productions, the character Rum Tum Tugger even rushes out into the crowd and finds an unsuspecting patron to dance with. At a Broadway performance on January 30, 1996, Tugger was played by stage veteran David Hibbard. That night, he singled out one Evelyn Amato as his would-be dance partner. Mildly put, she did not appreciate his antics. Alleging that Hibbard had gyrated his pelvis in her face, Amato sued the musical and its creative team for $6 million.

8. Thanks to Cats the musical, T.S. Eliot received a posthumous Tony.

Because most of the songs in Cats are almost verbatim recitations of Eliot’s poems, he’s regarded as its primary lyricist—even though he died in 1965, long before the show was conceived. Still, Eliot’s contributions earned him a 1983 Tony for Best Book of a Musical. A visibly moved Valerie Eliot took the stage to accept this prize on her late spouse’s behalf. “Tonight’s honor would have given my husband particular pleasure because he loved the theatre,” she told the crowd. Eliot also shared the Best Original Score Tony with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

9. The original Broadway production used more than 3000 pounds of yak hair.

Major productions of Cats use meticulously crafted yak hair wigs, which currently cost around $2300 apiece and can take 40 hours or more to produce. Adding to the expense is the fact that costumers can’t just recycle an old wig after some performer gets recast. “Each wig is made specifically for the actor,” explains wigmaker Hannah McGregor in the above video. Since people tend to have differently shaped heads, precise measurements are taken of every cast member’s skull before he or she is fitted with a new head of hair. “[Their wigs] have to fit them perfectly,” McGregor adds, “because of the amount of jumping and skipping they do as cats.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, over its 18-year run, the first Broadway production used 3247 pounds of yak hair. (In comparison, the heaviest actual yaks only weigh around 2200 pounds.)

10. A recent revival included hip hop.

In December 2014, Cats returned to the West End with an all-new cast and music. “The Rum Tum Tugger,” a popular Act I song, was reimagined as a hip hop number. “I’ve come to the conclusion, having read [Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats] again, that maybe Eliot was the inventor of rap,” Webber told the press.

11. Another revival featured an internet-famous feline for one night only.

On September 30, Grumpy Cat made her Broadway debut in Cats, briefly taking the stage with the cast. Despite being named Honorary Jellicle Cat, she hated every minute of it.

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