Shakespeare in the Park’s Return Reflects How New York City and Its Theater Institutions Are Changing

As the New York Theater industry pulls itself out of the COVID era, every baby step feels like a milestone.

But perhaps no other reopening will carry the same symbolic weight as the return of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, the 67-year-old institution that is an annual signpost of summer — and this year, of a return to in-person life — for both the theater and for the civic fabric of New York City.

When “Merry Wives,” a new version of the Bard comedy set in a South Harlem community of West African immigrants, begins performances in Central Park July 6, it arrives informed by all the tumult of the past 18 months. The production aims to be a celebration intended not only as lively communal release from the grief and hardship of coronavirus, but also as a bold embrace of Black joy following the national reckoning over equity and racial justice that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

“It’s a statement of what kind of work we’re elevating and putting up there as epitomizing excellence,” says the show’s director, Saheem Ali, who was named an associate artistic director of Public Theater last summer. “Seeing Black immigrants being members of this city and living their lives and allowed to be fully dimensional human beings is a really powerful way to say, ‘This is how we’re coming back.’”

At the same time, “Merry Wives” represents a major step in post-pandemic producing for a storied theater company that, during the convulsions of the long work stoppage, furloughed or laid off more than 55% of its staff and shrank its operating budget from $58 million to about $26 million.

Even now, the organization remains in the throes of devising and executing the changes that will ensure that the theater’s return to life does not entail a return to the status quo. For the Public Theater, that means making the structural shifts that would allow the culture behind the scenes to reflect the creative values of an organization that has long championed diverse casting and stories onstage, and more recently launched the Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton.”

The still-evolving work includes a regularly updated, public plan for anti-racism and cultural transformation, the creation of a new senior staff position, and a pledge that the theater’s art, audience and staff will reflect the demographics of New York City, with metrics to measure progress.

“Last year a mirror was held up to us that told us it’s finally time for the Public to take its values as seriously in its internal organization as it does in the work we do onstage,” says Oskar Eustis, who’s been artistic director of the Public since 2005. “Honestly, we’ve not always been as good at upholding our values when it comes to who is actually running the organization. In a way, what we’re saying with ‘Merry Wives’ is: The culture belongs to everybody. We’re trying to model that in as dramatic a fashion as we can.”

The decision to produce “Merry Wives” grew out of staffwide discussions last year in which it became clear that employees wanted to return to Central Park with something “joyous and lively and celebratory,” Ali recalls. Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” described by Eustis as a “pure comedy,” seemed to fit the bill.

The plot centers on two witty women who conspire to make a fool of Falstaff after they discover his scheme to seduce them both at the same time. “As I was thinking about the play, I started to hear a West African dialect,” remembers Ali, who was born and raised in Nairobi. “And it was so fucking funny!”

To adapt, condense and update the occasionally convoluted farce, Ali turned to frequent collaborator Jocelyn Bioh, with whom, he says, he shares “the same passion to transform what African stories are presented onstage, and shift the narrative from the poverty porn that tends to be what depictions of African life are.”

A fast-rising writer whose breakout success “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play” was one of the most-produced scripts in the country during the 2019-20 season, Bioh is now at work on two stage projects with Ali attached to direct: “Nollywood Dreams,” scheduled to premiere at MCC Theater in the fall, and “Goddess,” a musical based on a Kenyan myth debuting at Berkeley Rep in the spring. (She’s also involved in developing a film adaptation of “Once on This Island” and a not-yet-announced TV series for Disney Plus.)

Bioh’s new version of “Merry Wives” fits right in with her ongoing mission to write comedies that center on Black people, and especially African people. “My goal in my work is always to bring joy and light and levity, and an understanding of a community of people that some audience members maybe didn’t understand before,” she says. “Right now, we’re all coming out of a really intense and unpredictable 16 months, and we’ve seen so many sad and violent things. I think this celebration of resiliency, of finding laughter through the storm, and of Black joy — it feels like a really thrilling and fitting way to counteract all of the sadness.”

But to get the show to the stage, the Public must meet the challenges confronting theater companies around the country this summer: adapting on the fly to constantly evolving safety regulations and health codes. Among the new positions created for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park production are a COVID compliance monitor for the company, one for the Delacorte facility, and a testing coordinator. These are in addition to the team of about 10 existing staff members, all trained monitors, who oversee the company’s long-term compliance projects.

Rehearsals for “Merry Wives” were held in an indoor studio with a maximum capacity of 26 (or 100 square feet per person). Masks were required for everyone, except when people were actively performing. Company members were tested three times a week, and anyone visiting rehearsal was required to test in on the morning of the visit.

At the Delacorte, cramped, shared dressing rooms have been replaced by individual booths, many of which now occupy one of the gate areas that was formerly used as an entrance to the amphitheater.

For audiences, the daily, in-person lines that theatergoers traditionally stood in to obtain free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are gone, having been entirely replaced by a digital lottery. Capacity for the 1,800-seat Delacorte was initially limited to a socially distanced, masked crowd of 428, in accordance with state guidelines for small and medium performing arts venues. As regulations loosened in recent weeks, that was updated to a maximum of 1,468 masked theatergoers, with both full capacity and physically distanced sections available.

For the Public, “Merry Wives” is the outward sign of an organization putting itself back together — and in many respects, reconfiguring itself in new ways.

As part of an effort to increase equity and decentralize power from the tentpole position of artistic director, the Public’s major creative decisions are, as of last year, made by a six-person team that includes Eustis, Ali and fellow associate artistic directors Shanta Thake and Mandy Hackett, plus managing director Jeremy Adams and director of producing Yuvika Tolani.

In addition to the creation of a new senior staff position and a 20-person committee to oversee anti-racism and cultural transformation work, along with an increase in open forums to allow for greater staff input, the Public has pledged to implement a standardized living wage (higher than the U.S. minimum wage)
for all employees by 2023. Prior to the pandemic, the company had eliminated unpaid internships and the grueling tech-rehearsal marathons that can require people to work 12-hour days.

Meanwhile, the organization aims to scale its operations back up with an operating budget of $50 million for the 2021-22 season. That will involve bringing back some of the employees that the Public left stranded when the organization furloughed 135 of its staff members by the beginning of 2021.

No one’s singing kumbaya yet. “There is a lot of exhaustion and real hurt from many of our folks who found themselves without work for six months,” says executive director Patrick Willingham. “I can see how painful it was, knowing there was nothing else for them. On an individual and an institutional basis, that is going to take some real healing.”

In that, at least, “Merry Wives” might be an initial step in that process. “It’s joy; it’s love; it’s a wedding,” Bioh says of the show. “It feels like the right answer to everything that we’ve gone through this year.”