Out of the 200 cast members of "As You Like It," only five are professional actors. The musical adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy is a Public Works Dallas production, a community engagement initiative designed to put Dallas' diverse community onstage with members of Dallas Theater Center's Brierly Resident Acting Company.
"You hear Dallas, you see Dallas and you feel Dallas and hopefully you walk out and love Dallas even more," Dayron J. Miles, the director of Public Works Dallas, said.
The immersive production adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery with music and lyrics by Taub runs August 16-18 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Arts District.
Public Works Dallas is a sister program of Public Works, an initiative developed by The Public Theater in New York City in 2013. Upon winning the SMU Meadows Prize in 2015, Public Works Director Lear deBessonet brought the program to the Dallas Theater Center. The Dallas Theater Center is one of three founding partners of Public Works National including The National Theatre in London and Seattle Repertory Theatre.
The program uses the creative process of making theater to bring together the members of the community from every neighborhood, generation, and socioeconomic background. "At our core, human beings, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, no matter their social economic status or their backgrounds, people want to be connected to each other," Miles said.
Members of the community participate in free yearlong workshops at Jubilee Park & Community Center, Literacy Instruction for Texas, Bachman Lake Together, and City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department, all Public Works Dallas community partners. Auditions are held at these workshops for the annual summer production.
"The Tempest" was Public Works Dallas' first production in 2017, followed by the "The Winter's Tale" in 2018. This year's Public Works show in New York is "Hercules." For all Public Works productions, epic stories are a necessity. "Shakespeare, like ‘Hercules,' like the Greeks, provide big containers," Miles said. "What I mean by that is these are stories that can contain large amounts of community. That is what you need. You need something big enough to wrap its arms around the 200 amazing Dallasites you put on your stage."
Most theatrical productions work to serve the director's vision or the playwright's intention. At Public Works Dallas, priorities are different. "With a Public Works show, I feel that that hierarchy or that paradigm has shifted to serve the community," Miles said. "The number one thing I have to do is set every single person involved in this show up for success."
One of those community members Miles wants to see succeed is Tom Morris, a recent transplant from Los Angeles. Morris appeared in small roles in film and television while living in California, but he is new to theater. He began volunteering with Public Works Dallas two years ago. Watching participants inspired him. "I've seen these kids from two years ago and they've all grown. They've changed," Morris said. "It struck me that these people are fearless. They just got up and threw themselves into it and auditioned. It motivated me."
Public Works Dallas has been a personally illuminating experience for Morris. "I found this whole experience has made me feel like a better person," he said. "I'm finding that I'm willing to share, to accept other people's energy that they're sharing because normally, I stay in my own little shell."
At 81 years old, Willie McGee is a stroke survivor who enjoys going out and meeting new people. "It's something good for senior citizens, because they do nothing but sit around and act up. With this, their attitude could change a lot," McGee said.
In "As You Like It," McGee has several lines to learn and he appreciates the support he receives to conquer the effects of the stroke. He likes the challenge and being part of something bigger than himself. "Hey, there's more to life than dominoes," McGee said.
Speaking English is not a requirement to participate in Public Works Dallas. "Community is so much more than race and culture. That doesn't matter when we come together. Your education level doesn't have to do with your importance," Leticia Ramirez said in Spanish. Public Works Community Liaison Maria Calderon acted as a translator. "We all very easily love each other."
Ramirez is performing with her young daughter, Nathaly Valencia. "The fact that we can be on this journey together – it's just such a blessing and it is bringing such good memories and happiness," Ramirez said.
At the persistent urging of her supervisor, Tamika S. Sanders auditioned for the "The Tempest" and found the experience exhilarating. "Once we're here, nothing outside of here matters. This is a different world," Sanders said.
Sanders loves getting to know entire families who would remain strangers if not for Public Works Dallas. "These are trying times that we're in right now and it's so important for people to find an outlet that is positive where they can experience joy and where they connect with people they would not otherwise meet," Sanders said.
Miles listens to the cast learn music, contemplating the political and racial divisions damaging Dallas' sense of kinship. He finds hope in the music. "They sing the words, ‘Together we'll heal our wound,'" Miles said. "That's why we do this."