The Public Theater celebrates the end of a long refurbishment
For the past four years, the Public Theater on Astor Place has been inundated with scaffolding, construction fencing and the occasional Porta-Potty as part of an ambitious $40-million revitalization project.
But on Thursday morning, a star-studded rededication ceremony marked the end of that messy period, and the start of eight weeks of events in honor of the theater’s flashy new redesign.
The building, originally commissioned by the New York merchant John Jacob Astor as a public library in 1854, now features a louvered glass canopy, a refurbished lobby, a mezzanine lounge with Italian leather seating, and a spacious exterior staircase that, according to the Architect’s Statement, provides a “dignified entry experience.” The chandelier hanging above the bar in the center of the lobby is not just a chandelier. It’s a large-scale multi-media sculpture called “Shakespeare Machine,” featuring 37 LED display screens on which “scenes” made from text fragments of Shakespeare’s plays flicker and dance.
To ring in these new developments, a number of politicians, actors and directors showed up to perform excerpts from the Bard’s oeuvre on a small stage inside the theater's front door.
Mayor Bloomberg started things off with an upbeat selection from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Joy, gentle friends! Joy and fresh days of love/ Accompany your hearts!”). Liev Schrieber opted for Hamlet(“Do you hear,/ Let them be well used for they are the abstract and brief/ chronicles of the time.”) Christine Quinn chose lines from All’s Well That Ends Well and Scott Stringer did The Tempest (“Be not afeard,” his reading began) before they both shuffled out the door with aides in tow.
Those who remained spoke about their intimate relationship to the Public.
“I used to sleep here,” said Stew, who wrote the lyrics and the book for the rock musical Passing Strange, which played at The Public before opening on Broadway in 2008. “I wrote half the play in this lobby. That’s one of the incredible things about theater: there’s always a place to sleep.”
Susan Lori Parks, the author and playwright, said The Public has been her “artistic home” since around 1994, when her two-act The America Play had a run there. But despite having staged a play every day for a year at The Public for her “365 Plays in 365 Days” project, she said she’d never actually slept there.
“I have a home,” she said, laughing. “I got a man and a child. I ain’t no Stew!” She paused. “Then again, Stew has a baby. And a little girl.”
On the mezzanine, guests picked at blackberries drenched in yogurt and poked their heads inside The Library, the new Astor-era cocktail lounge that looks like a set from Sleep No More. The brainchild of restaurateurs Andrew Carmellini and Luke Ostrom, the lounge will be serving signature cocktails like The Jersey Lightning Sling, made with Laird’s applejack and house-made orgeat.
One goal of the revitalization project, dictated by the building’s landmarked status, was to preserve the original historic structure while ensuring the whole thing didn’t come crashing down onto Lafayette Street. As such, the architects and construction workers spent a lot of time excavating the floors and knocking down walls in an attempt to bolster its creaky 19th-century framework.
Stephen Chu, an associate partner at Ennead Architects, the group that conducted the redesign, said that Astor built a tunnel that links his former residence across the street with the theater’s basement.
“It’s all bricked up now,” Chu said. “That’s one of the little known secrets of the original building.”
Oskar Eustis, the Public’s permanently scarved artistic director, said he discovered an absence of beams in places where there should be beams.
“We opened the walls and didn’t know what was going to be there,” he said. “We were surprised the building didn’t fall down.”
His favorite discovery, he said, was a small booklet of union membership cards written in Hebrew for the Yiddish Workers Union. Before the Public moved in, he said, the building had housed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“We imagined some lefty got busted trying to organize a union, and slipped the cards behind the wall,” he said. “The sense that the building has been a home for progressive activity for so long is pretty exciting.”
He turned his gaze toward the guests revolving around the lobby’s centralized bar.
“We call it the fountain,” he said. “It’s the center of our piazza, and it’s doing the flow-of-crowd thing that I hoped it would.”
Patrick Willingham, the Public’s executive director and the former president of the Blue Man Group, agreed with Eustis’s fountain metaphor. And he expressed admiration for those who stuck with the Public during its sometimes dispiriting renovation.
“Having to sneak around the side of the building to use the Porta-Potties instilled a real sense of ownership in our audience and or artists, I think,” he said. “They've all got their war stories now. Like, ‘Remember when we had to duck the barricades?’”
A reception at the theater on Thursday night brought some more good news: the announcement that Meryl Streep has donated $1 million toward the renovation effort.
“I give this gift in honor of the founder of the Public Theater, my friend and mentor Joseph Papp, and in remembrance of one of the theater’s Board members and greatest supporters, my friend Nora Ephron," Streep said in a statement. The actress received her Broadway debut in Papp's version of Trewlany of the Wells, which played at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1975.
An eight week run of community events at the Public Theater begins with a block party and open house on Saturday, October 13. The event will include musical performances from Joe's Pub artists, teasers of some of the Public's new musicals and an array of food trucks like Korilla BBQ and Rickshaw Dumplings.