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."
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.