CLOSE
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Disney/Marvel
arrow
entertainment
The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NBC
arrow
entertainment
15 Surprising Facts About Hill Street Blues
NBC
NBC

Until the impressive record was surpassed by The West Wing in 2000, Hill Street Blues held the title of most Emmy-awarded freshman series, with eight trophies for its debut season alone (despite its basement-level ratings). The drama that chronicled the lives of the men and women working the Hill Street police station beat has been credited with changing television ever since its debut in 1981.

Among Hill Street Blues's innovations are the use of handheld cameras, a large ensemble cast, multi-episode story arcs, and a mix of high drama and comedy—elements which still permeate the small screen today. Here are 15 facts about the groundbreaking series.

1. STEVEN BOCHCO AND MICHAEL KOZOLL CREATED IT, DESPITE NOT WANTING TO DO ANOTHER COP SHOW.

MTM Enterprises was specifically hired by NBC to create a cop show, so Steven Bochco (who later co-created L.A. Law and NYPD Blue) and Michael Kozoll (co-writer of First Blood) agreed to do it—as long as the network left them “completely alone to do whatever we want,” according to Bochco. NBC agreed, and the two wrote the pilot script in 10 days.

2. IT WAS INFLUENCED BY A 1977 DOCUMENTARY.

The show's creators looked to The Police Tapes, a 1977 documentary that chronicled a South Bronx police precinct during a particularly hostile time in New York City's history, for inspiration. NBC's then-president Fred Silverman was inspired to create a cop show in the first place after seeing Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), which stars Paul Newman as a veteran cop in a South Bronx police district.

3. BRUCE WEITZ HAD AN AGGRESSIVE AUDITION.

Bruce Weitz landed the role of undercover officer Mick Belker by playing the part. "I went to the audition dressed as how I thought the character should dress—and loud and pushy," Weitz recalled. "When I got into the room, I jumped up on [MTM co-founder] Grant Tinker's desk and went after his nose. I heard he said afterwards, 'There's no way I can't offer him the job.'"

4. JOE SPANO THOUGHT HE WAS MISCAST.

Joe Spano in 'Hill Street Blues'
NBC

Joe Spano auditioned for the role of Officer Andrew Renko, but ended up playing Lieutenant Henry Goldblume. “I was always disappointed that I didn’t end up playing Renko,” Spano told Playboy in 1983. Spano also wasn't a fan of his character's penchant for bow ties, which he claimed was Michael Kozoll's idea. "I fought it all the way," he said. "I thought it was a stereotypical thing to do. But it actually turned out to be right. You don’t play into the bow tie—you fight against it."

5. BARBARA BOSSON WAS BOCHCO’S WIFE, BUT WASN’T PLANNING ON BEING A SERIES REGULAR.

Barbara Bosson played Fay, Captain Frank Furillo’s ex-wife, who was only supposed to appear in the first episode in order to “contextualize” the captain, according to Bochco. But when Silverman watched the episode, he asked, “She’s going to be a regular, right?”

6. IT TOOK MIKE POST TWO HOURS TO WRITE THE ICONIC THEME SONG.

The composer—who also wrote the themes for The Greatest American Hero, Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order—was instructed by Bochco to write something “antithetical” to the visuals. Post wanted to add more orchestration to the piano piece; Bochco disagreed.

Post also spent four to five hours writing five minutes of new music for each episode of Hill Street Blues.

7. THE PILOT TESTED POORLY.

According to a network memo, among the many problems test audiences noted were that "the main characters were perceived as being not capable and having flawed personalities ... Audiences found the ending unsatisfying. There are too many loose ends ... 'Hill Street' did not come off as a real police station ... There was too much chaos in the station house, again reflecting that the police were incapable of maintaining control even on their home ground." NBC picked it up anyway.

8. RENKO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE IN THE FIRST EPISODE, AND COFFEY WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE AT THE END OF THE FIRST SEASON.

Charles Haid had other projects lined up, so he agreed to take the part of Renko, a man destined to die almost immediately. But another series Haid was relying on didn’t get picked up, and NBC claimed Renko tested too well for him to meet an early end. Ed Marinaro's Coffey was meant to be shot and killed in “Jungle Madness,” the final episode of the first season. The ending was changed to make it a cliffhanger, and Marinaro’s character survived.

9. THEY HAD HISTORICALLY BAD SEASON ONE RATINGS.

A 'Hill Street Blues' cast photo
NBC Television/Getty Images

In its first season, Hill Street Blues show finished 87th out of 96 shows, making it the lowest-rated drama in television history to get a second season. Bochco credited the show’s renewal to two things: NBC being a last place network at the time, and the NBC sales department noticing that high-end advertisers were buying commercial time during the show.

10. THEY NEVER SPECIFIED WHERE THE SHOW WAS LOCATED, BUT IT’S PROBABLY CHICAGO.

The exterior of the Maxwell Street police station in Chicago filled in for the fictitious Hill Street precinct for the opening credits and background footage. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1996 and is currently the University of Illinois at Chicago police department headquarters.

11. PLENTY OF FUTURE STARS MADE EARLY APPEARANCES.

Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Laurence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Danny Glover, Frances McDormand, and Michael Richards all found early work on the series.

12. SAMMY DAVIS JR. WANTED ON THE SHOW.

Sammy Davis Jr.
Michael Fresco, Evening Standard, Getty Images

Unfortunately, it never happened. Sometime after Bochco wrote in a reference to the singer, Davis and Bochco ran into each other. Davis said he loved it and started jumping up and down.

13. BOCHCO HAD A WAR WITH THE CENSORS.

Loving to use puns for titles, Bochco wanted to title an episode “Moon Over Uranus,” after Cape Canaveral was just in the news. Standards and Practices said no. Bochco eventually got his way, and proceeded to name the next two season three episodes “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel” and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy.”

14. DAVID MILCH AND DICK WOLF’S CAREERS WERE LAUNCHED FROM IT.

David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue and creator of Deadwood) went from Yale writing teacher to a TV script writer through his former Yale roommate, Jeff Lewis. His first script for the show was season three's “Trial by Fury” episode, which won an Emmy, a WGA Award, and a Humanitas Prize. He later became an executive producer on the show. The first TV script credited to Dick Wolf (creator of the Law & Order franchise) was the season six episode, "Somewhere Over the Rambow." His first sole credit, for “What Are Friends For?,” earned Wolf an Emmy nomination in 1986.

It’s also worth noting that journalist and author Bob Woodward received a writing credit for season seven's “Der Roachenkavalier” and David Mamet penned the same season's “A Wasted Weekend” for his first television credit.

15. DENNIS FRANZ’S CHARACTER HAD A BRIEF, COMEDIC SPIN-OFF.

Dennis Franz (later Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue) first played corrupt cop Sal Benedetto in five episodes, before reappearing for the final two seasons as Lt. Norman Buntz. After Hill Street Blues ended its seven-season run, Franz reprised the latter character in Beverly Hills Buntz, which ran for one season beginning in 1987. In the 30-minute dramedy, Buntz was a private investigator after quitting the police force. Only nine episodes were broadcast by NBC.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios