Lear deBessonet Makes Theater as a Hopeful Public Proposal

This community organizer/director also aspires one day to recreate the Federal Theatre Project.

Lear deBessonet. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

In a previous series of CFR stories called Critical I, theater critics were asked to reflect on their work — what is relevantwho is and is not a critic; the audience for critical writing. We asked critics to tell their own stories and to offer their personal views of criticism.

In this new series, I will have conversations with theater creators on stage and backstage about their influences, personal and professional visions, successes and challenges, and what it takes to do what they do.

My first conversation was with director Lear deBessonet, who was named last week as the first-ever resident director of City Center’s acclaimed Encores! series, working alongside Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman. deBessonet is perhaps best known, however, as creator of the Public Works program at the Public Theater, which was founded in 2013 with the intention of inviting NYC audiences to engage with theater both as spectators and creators. Public Works identifies local partners to build community participation in workshops, classes, productions and in the Public Theater’s daily life. Even as deBessonet continued to direct more conventionally staged works — Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama and the Public in 2013; Suzan Lori-Parks’ Venus at Signature in 2017; the Quiara Alegría Hudes-Erin McKeown musical Miss You Like Hell at the Public in 2018 — her expansive vision for Public Works has allowed her to establish a unique niche within the field. Using enormous casts (200 people or more, typically, coming from all five boroughs), her Public Works projects include The Tempest (2013), The Winter’s Tale (2014), The Odyssey (2015), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015), all at the Delacorte. The model has been so successful that replications can or will be seen in Dallas, Seattle, Detroit and London.

The following is a condensed and lightly edited version of my recent phone interview with deBessonet. 

Story continues below.

‘Good Person of Szechuan,’ 2013, at the Public Theater. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Do you have a personal or professional statement or vision?

Two statements baked into the fabric of Public Works reflect my personal artistic statement. First, “this is our proposal to humanity.” The idea of art as a proposal, not just reflecting and critiquing the world as it exists, but also offering other ideas of what might be and how we might exist together. Second, when we describe Public Works in one sentence, we say, “We make ambitious works of participatory theater.” That phrase is straight from my bloodstream — even works that don’t have 200 people in them, even if participation is just the audience’s imagination. There is a fundamental exchange happening between actors, designers and the audience — all the people coming together around a show. I would never want to do something that didn’t feel participatory.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I’ve lived in NYC for 16 years, and Brooklyn for 15. I’m from Baton Rouge, LA, and went to college at the University of Virginia. My interest in participatory theater comes from Louisiana, where my family still lives. I wasn’t exposed to professional theater, but my life was steeped in theater: the theater of Mardi Gras and football games and church and all these extremely populist forms that involve music, dance, people from all parts of the city coming together. I’ve never wanted to lose the animating spirit you feel in those settings.

My favorite place? An all-girls summer camp I attended in Mentone, AL was a major highlight of my development. It was a relatively rustic traditional summer camp: sleeping in an uncomfortable setting and being in the rain and camping and canoeing and all of that stuff. It was the most extraordinary fun and a place where the entire ethos was about embracing difficulty as fun.

That has stuck with me as part of everything I do: the joy of difficulty connected to the presence of other people. If you’re by yourself and your tent has a leak in it and it’s raining, that’s not funny and that’s no fun. But if there are other people with you, it can become this other thing. That’s the great opportunity — the way that humanity is always hanging on this edge of despair and yet, because we are together, we have this chance to transform that into something artful and hilarious and magical.

Story continues below.

Do you consider yourself a director and producer? A convener of mass events?

I think of myself as a director and community organizer.

What is your main area of expertise? Which interest came first? How did you develop it?

I have directed since I was a small child. When I was 5, I had a theater troupe at my house that consisted of my sister, our cocker spaniel, and neighborhood kids. We would do fairy tales, Bible stories (we were in the Deep South), and scenes from movies like classic movie musicals. The canon of classic musical theater sits alongside the Mardi Gras and church of it all. Only later did I see those things as separate categories. Staging a production of Annie at my house with other kids felt the same as going to a football game or going to church.

I also have a distinct memory that when I was 10, I articulated the goal to run a theater company in Russia. It was perestroika, where the social fabric was shifting and there was this group social pain that had to be navigated as society shifted. I thought that sounded like the right place for a theater company.

I went to UVA in the Jefferson Scholars Program that provides a full ride. It pays for your summers, books, everything, so you leave with no debt, which makes a huge difference for someone starting a life as an artist. I did theater all through college and majored in political and social thought. I was interested in theater for social change, so I studied history and literature and philosophy, trying to have as broad a perspective as possible.

Story continues below.

‘The Tempest’ at the Delacorte Theater, 2013. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Tell me about your first professional directing gig?

My first professional opportunity, the one that got me to New York in 2002, was working as Anne Bogart’s assistant director. She encouraged me to not continue assisting but to start making work. She believed that you can’t learn unless you’re putting things out into the world and making yourself.

Over those first four years, I assisted Anne Bogart, then Marianne Weems of The Builders Association, Martha Clarke and Bart Sher. That trajectory of assisting was a kind of grad school for me. Also, I was making and producing my own work: I would spend the entire year making a show. I had crazy jobs during that time — an illegal poker club, coat check girl, all sorts of weird personal assistant jobs. The crucible of those years, this compressing, extreme time, was part of the making of me as a director.

Bart has been a great mentor. Investment in the mentor-mentee relationship between directors is absolutely essential. Directors don’t get to watch each other work and it really is learning a craft; you have to have someone take you under their wing and show you the trade. At the time I worked with Bart, I had a conversation with Anne Cattaneo from Lincoln Center Theater. I had just done a bluegrass version of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards at PS122, and I had been lacing music, through my pieces, but I never thought of them as musicals. Since my Baton Rouge tour-de-force backyard days, I had not done an actual musical. I had this lightbulb go off: I want to do musicals and I need to learn about how to do this, as a professional. Anne said, “I think Bart is the right person for you.” So I first worked with Bart at the Met [Opera] on The Barber of Saville in 2015. I’ll be doing a Magic Flute with the Met Orchestra, planned for summer 2020 at the Delacorte.

Story continues below.

Are there areas of directing, producing or community organizing that you haven’t engaged with and want to try? What’s your vision for your future work? 

My long-term aspiration is to revive the Federal Theatre Project, but not federally-funded. I’m really invested in thinking about — given the situation that the country is in and the urban-rural divide — how pressing issues of our society map along that divide. You can look at the breakdown of wealth in the country, and map health and educational outcomes and racial and gender dynamics. It feels like theater.

What we’ve been doing with Public Works so far is intended for a city. We have been expanding, partnering with other cities. We‘ve partnered with the National in London, where they’ve just completed the first full cycle of the Public Acts initiative, doing both 200-person productions and engagement 11 months a year. Public Works also has been happening in Dallas and Seattle. These three cities have been a huge learning curve for all of us. To each of those cities, the project has meant something different. It takes on the form of the city itself, including the challenges of the city — transportation challenges of the city, for example, get manifested in trying to make the work. The next phase of Public Works involves partnering with more cities, some of them in more rural areas.

‘The Winter’s Tale,’ Delacorte Theater, 2014. Photo: Joan Marcus.

There’s such a rich history of community-based work in America. Given the dire state of our social fabric, it feels that there’s an opportunity for theaters to bring unity and shared vision. Gathering points like town halls and religious spaces where people of different viewpoints could come together and work through and enact their democracy are so toxic right now that they are not spaces in which people feel welcome and seen. Theater is a place that can be that. All over this country there are high school theater teachers, there are people working at YMCAs, there are nurses in the ICU who love musicals. There’s a corps ready to be mobilized. That’s what I’m thinking about.

What inspired me about the Federal Theatre Project, the enormous amount of work made manifest during its four years, from 1935 to 1939 — the veins and arteries were already there. The project supported local artists and groups with a huge amount of funding and support and organization. Organizing united people in a shared effort, as opposed to lots of different little efforts. And the power of putting so many artists to work not only in NYC and LA but in all 50 states, in rural areas and urban areas. I’m inspired by that historical moment and by thinking about what it could be again.

Story continues below.

‘The Odyssey,’ Delacorte Theater, 2015. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Who can be a director? Are there necessary attributes to direct and to convene?

Every human being is naturally creative and expressive. And while that belief is foundational in my work, it doesn’t negate expertise. When you hear Audra McDonald sing, there’s no question that what’s happening is a gift, is something sort of superhuman, in a way that an Olympic athlete can do something superhuman. For directors, there’s a lot of shouldering of responsibility. For anyone who wants to do it, fantastic. Do you want to be responsible for the experience of this many other people? Because that’s what the job is. It is focusing the room and making sure that everyone is telling the same story and taking care of the experience of both the artists and the audience. It’s a question of whether somebody wants to take that on. 

Which directors and theater makers, in your own field or others, do you admire? Why?

From a directing standpoint, Ariane Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil. I did a project with them at a Cambodian refugee camp that was one of the turning points in my life as an artist. Partners in Health and Paul Farmer, one of the founding doctors. It’s kind of like Doctors Without Borders, but they frame their work partially in terms of the idea of the “long defeat.” They are medical workers in some of the most under-resourced places in the world, dealing with extreme natural disasters and lack of access to modern medical technology. Paul Farmer, the founder, is this combination of quixotic and irrationally hopeful and fully aware of how hard it’s going to be. They can’t judge their results by traditional metrics, because metrics encourage you to take on less difficult projects to begin with. Their embrace “the long defeat” with hope: even if by the time we get there, it’s too late to save a person, we still believe that in the dignity of offering the best medical care. Paul, in his early days as a medical student working abroad, noticed that people were dying of things that cost seven cents to cure. He asked: do we really believe this person’s life is not worth seven cents? It was that sort of fundamental absurdity and imbalance that activated him and made him devote his entire life to this impossible project, making a difference while rejecting traditional metrics.

There was a sermon by an old Baptist preacher that I heard in college. It had a refrain: “What are you going to do with your dash?” The “dash” was the gravestone hyphen between the year you were born and the year you died. You only have one. It’s a brief candle, right?

Thinking about that question, what is really worth doing, and letting go of anything that wouldn’t stand up to that question is how I want to live my life.

Story continues below.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Delacorte Theater, 2017. Photo: Joan Marcus.

If you weren’t a director, what would you be? Why?

A parish priest or a hospital chaplain. Serving those in need. We wear so many masks during our seven ages, the seven ages of man. We put on so many different personas. Many of those, including some really good ideas like deodorant and showering, are essentially masking our raw human need. I have a two-year-old and I am so aware of how much the human condition is need and dependence on others at the core. And yet we spend a lot of our life trying to seem independent and like we are doing it all by ourselves. When I think of a chaplain, that person is there in the moment that the mask falls, when people are their most human, their most real. I have such admiration for people that do that work. I don’t know that I actually could do it, but I admire it.

If you had to stop right now and write your dash, what would you say? 

What inspires me is seeing the way that the divine spark lives in every single person. It is frequently fucked up and hilarious and, not to be overly precious about it, that is what’s really there when we see what’s true. I want to spend my life trying to see that.