The coronavirus pandemic this year prompted the Public Theater to cancel its annual Free Shakespeare in the Park festival — it just didn’t seem possible to protect the health of either the audience or the cast.
But the theater, reluctant to completely let go of a beloved summer staple it has sustained for nearly six decades, has decided to embrace an even older theatrical tradition: the radio play.
The theater said Thursday that it has been working with WNYC to record Shakespeare’s “Richard II” as a four-part serial broadcast that will be aired July 13 to 16 and will also be available as a podcast. The radio production, directed by Saheem Ali, will feature much of the same cast that had been scheduled to perform in Central Park, starring André Holland (“Moonlight”) in the title role and now including Phylicia Rashad as the Duchess of Gloucester.
The Public also said that PBS had agreed on Aug. 14 to rebroadcast a filmed version of its 2019 production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” directed by Kenny Leon and starring Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman, which had previously aired as part of the Great Performances series.
“I came to my senses and realized that it’s not my job to make theater if the conditions are right to make theater, but to keep making theater no matter what the conditions are,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, who in April had announced cancellations of the “Richard II” production as well as a planned revival of a musical adaptation of “As You Like It.” “It was easy to see we couldn’t afford to let Shakespeare in the Park vanish completely from the cultural scene. These are not the ideal ways — we would like to be in the Delacorte — but in the absence of that, it feels like the right thing to do.”
The “Much Ado About Nothing” cast is all black, and the “Richard II” cast is predominantly made up of actors of color — casting decisions made long before the current national unrest over racial injustice, but that will undoubtedly take on new significance now. The “Richard II” production will be dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the “Much Ado” production will be paired with some kind of documentary material about the long history of black actors at Shakespeare in the Park.
“Particularly at this moment, when the entire country is focused on institutional racism, this is a great moment to be highlighting these plays,” Eustis said. “And, as always with Shakespeare, there are incredible resonances that come out and grab you.”
The Public, like all nonprofit theaters, has been hard hit by the economic side effects of the pandemic. Eustis had in April announced a plan to furlough 70 percent of the theater’s full-time, permanent staff, but then got a $4 million loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program that thus far has allowed the theater to avoid taking that step; Eustis said the federal money will run out July 17, and that “if we do not have any other government support, we will need to do furloughs.”
Although some nonprofit organizations around the country have announced their intentions to resume productions early next year, and others have canceled their entire seasons, Eustis said he is not ready to take either step, and declined to make any prediction about when the Public would return to staging live performances before audiences.
“You’ve got the wrong number if you’re looking for the astrologer,” he said. “We will be producing work this fall, but my bet is that it will be mostly virtual, and after that, nobody knows.”