New York Public Library via The Public Theater
New York Public Library via The Public Theater

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.

Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
10 Pats Born on St. Patrick's Day
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Need some St. Patrick's Day conversation fodder that doesn't involve leprechauns or four-leaf clovers? Ask your friends to name a "Pat" born on St. Patrick's Day. If they can't, they owe you a drink—then you can wow them with this list of 10.


Princess Patricia was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who gave up all of her royal titles when she married a commoner. She was born at Buckingham Palace on March 17, 1886.


The Dallas star was born on March 17, 1949. And here's a totally random fact about Duffy: His nephew is Barry Zito, former MLB pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.


Pattie Boyd
Larry Ellis, Express/Getty Images

Pattie Boyd is well-known to lovers of classic rock: She has been married three times, including once to George Harrison and once to Eric Clapton, who both wrote a couple of the most romantic songs in rock history in her honor (including The Beatles's "Something" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"). Boyd was a model when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964; the pair were married two years later. They divorced in 1977 and she married Clapton, Harrison's close friend, in 1979. She also had an affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones toward the end of her marriage to The Quiet Beatle.


Belfast-born Pat Rice is a former footballer and coach who spent the bulk of his career with Arsenal F.C. (that's "football club," a.k.a. soccer to us Americans). He joined the Gunners in 1964 as a mere apprentice, turning pro a couple of years later. He became captain in 1977 and left the club for a few years in the early 1980s to go to Watford, but returned after he retired from playing in 1984. In 2012, after nearly 30 years with the organization, he announced his retirement.


Patty Maloney is an actress with dwarfism who stands just three feet, 11 inches tall. She has appeared in many movies and T.V. shows over the years, including operating the Crypt Keeper puppet in Tales from the Crypt. She also played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in The Star Wars Holiday Special.


Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick in 'Six Feet Under'

Ok, so Mathew St. Patrick is the stage name of the actor, but he was born Patrick Matthews in Philadelphia on March 17, 1968. You probably know him best as David's boyfriend Keith on Six Feet Under.


He may not be a household name, but the recording artists Patrick Adams writes for and helps produce certainly are. Adams has been involved in the careers of Salt-N-Pepa, Sister Sledge, Gladys Knight, Rick James, and Coolio, among others.


It's possible you look at Patrick McDonnell's work every day, depending on which comics your newspaper carries. McDonnell draws a strip called Mutts featuring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch, respectively. Charles Schulz called it one of the best comic strips of all time.


 Singer/Guitarist Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins performs onstage during Live Earth New York at Giants Stadium on July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Yes, you know him better as just plain old Billy Corgan: he's the face of the Smashing Pumpkins, engages in public feuds with Courtney Love, and maybe once dated Jessica Simpson. He made his debut on March 17, 1967.


Patricia Ford is a retired model probably best known for her Playboy photoshoots in the 1990s.

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
9 Things You Might Not Know About National Treasure
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Released in 2004 to mixed critical reviews but a positive audience response, director Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure has grown into a perfect rainy-day film. Stumble upon it on a streaming service or a cable channel and the fable about historian-slash-codebreaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) excavating the truth about a reputed treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence will suck you in. Check out some facts about the movie’s development, its approach to historical accuracy, and why we haven't seen a third film.


Originally planned for a summer 2000 release, National Treasure—based on a concept by Disney marketing head Oren Aviv and DreamWorks television executive Charles Segars—had a Byzantine plot that kept it in a prolonged pre-production period. Nine writers were hired between 1999 and 2003 in an attempt to streamline the story, which sees code-breaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) pursuing the stash of riches squirreled away by Benjamin Franklin and his Freemason cohorts. Filming finally began in summer 2003 when Marianne and Cormac Wibberley got the script finalized. Turteltaub, who spent three years in development before finally starting production, told Variety that “getting Cage was worth [the wait].”


Nicolas Cage and Justin Bartha in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Fact and fiction blur considerably in National Treasure, which uses history as a jumping-off point for some major jumps in logic. While it’s not likely the Declaration of Independence has a secret treasure map written on it, Franklin and other Founding Fathers were actually Freemasons. Of the 55 men who signed the document, nine or more belonged to the society.


It can be tricky to secure permission to film on government property, which is why producers of National Treasure probably considered themselves fortunate when they discovered that Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame had built a perfect replica of Independence Hall on his land in Buena Park, California back in the 1960s. The production used it for a scene requiring Cage to run on the Hall's roof, a stunt that was not likely to have been approved by caretakers of the real thing.


One of Cage’s cryptic clues in the film is reading a time of 2:22 on the clock depicted on the image of Independence Hall on the $100 bill. Bills in circulation at that time really did have an illustration that pointed to that exact hour and minute, although it was changed to 10:30 for the 2009 redesign. There’s no given reason for why those times were picked by the Treasury Department, leaving conspiracy theorists plenty to chew on.


Speaking with The Washington Post in 2012, guards and escorts for the National Archives reported that the National Treasure films have led visitors to ask questions that could only have been motivated by seeing the series. One common query: whether or not there really is a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. “I call it ‘that’ movie,” guard Robert Pringle told the paper. “We get a lot of questions about the filming.”


Both Cage and director Jon Turteltaub attended Beverly Hills High School in the late 1970s and shared a drama class together. While promoting a later film collaboration, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Cage revealed that Turteltaub had actually beat him out for the lead in a stage production of Our Town. Cage was relegated to two lines of dialogue in a bit part.


Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

On a press tour for the film, Cage told reporters that he and co-star Diane Kruger bonded by going out at night and singing karaoke. “We’d go and karaoke from time to time and sort of blow it out and be completely ridiculous, which helped, I think,” he said. “I think it was some Rage Against the Machine, AC/DC and some Sex Pistols.”


Popular films often have the residual effect of drawing interest to the real-life locations or subject matter incorporated into their plots. Mackinac Island, site of the 1982 romance Somewhere in Time, has become a perennial tourist spot. The same influence was true of National Treasure and its 2007 sequel, both of which apparently contributed to an uptick in attendance at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.


It’s been over a decade since National Treasure: Book of Secrets hit theaters, but Cage is still optimistic fans of the series could see another installment. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2016, the actor said a third film was in development, with the convoluted writing process slowing things down.

“I do know that those scripts are very difficult to write, because there has to be some credibility in terms of the facts and fact-checking, because it was relying on historical events,” Cage said. “And then you have to make it entertaining. I know that it’s been a challenge to get the script where it needs to be. That’s as much as I’ve heard. But they’re still working on it.”


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