A Common Thread from Theodora to the Public Theater and the Skirball Center

I had two meetings recently with representatives of very different cultural organizations – the Public Theater in New York City and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, these meetings had a common theme: inclusion. The idea of a pluralistic society, enlivened by its differences rather than divided, resonates with Theodora’s crusade 1,500 years ago in Constantinople. Theodora, a woman of the people if ever there was one, argued tirelessly that the Empire’s policy should not be rejection and persecution of dissenters, but acceptance.

One meeting was with the renowned architect Moshe Safdie and Uri D. Herscher, the founding president and CEO of the Skirball (the only Jewish cultural organization defined by its commitment to pluralism). I went to hear about the October opening of two new pavilions that complete the Skirball’s fifteen-acre campus and an exhibition of Safdie’s work called “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie.” I heard how Safdie’s architecture reflects the Skirball’s core values.

You’d think such an institution’s mission would be to teach others about Jewish heritage and celebrate one ethnic group’s contributions, which doesn’t sound exactly inclusive. Instead, Dr. Herscher (a rabbi and former Dean of Hebrew Union College) explained the Skirball’s mission: to show the symbiosis of American democratic ideals and Jewish traditions. Its core values he says are enlightenment, inclusion, welcome, freedom, equality and hospitality; ideals that drove the creation of the campus, designed by humanist architect Safdie to look like a village.

Located north of Los Angeles, it was literally built on the site of a garbage dump. Where others saw a dump, “What I see,” Safdie said, “is an oasis.” “He saw possibilities,” Herscher said. “He finds secrets within the land and reveals them.”

Safdie is a social activist who’s been designing places to build community ever since his Master’s thesis was realized as Habitat ’67 for the Montreal Expo. It became the poster child for affordable, high-density urban housing that enhances quality of life. He’s gone on (during an almost fifty-year career) to design iconic structures like Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and the Marina Bay Sands resort complex in Singapore.

What Safdie, Herscher, the Skirball (and my novel’s heroine Theodora) have in common is the view that pluralism and inclusion are the bedrock of a world where all can live safely and with dignity. Safdie’s design for the Skirball is like a garden in paradise. It’s a serene refuge, a modernist masterpiece. How it differs from a nearby institution, the Getty Museum, shows how philosophy affects architecture and reflects social beliefs. “They decided to build the Getty on top of a mountain,” Safdie said, while “we’re at the bottom, tucked into the mountain. Being in the foothills gives the message of access. We’re not aloof from the city.”

Yet in today’s world, accessibility brings vulnerability. When a suspected terrorist targeted Jewish sites in Los Angeles (he was stopped at the Canadian border after the 9/11 attacks on New York City), Herscher refused to impose security measures like a fence, gate, or metal-detectors. “The best security is the community in which we’re all owners,” Herscher said, adding, “The whole can’t exist without all of its parts. We try to disarm danger with our mission of hospitality and welcome.”

He cited the example of the Biblical Abraham’s “first act as a Jew: to open the flaps of his tent to the north, south, east and west. He sees three strangers from afar and runs out to greet them, even though he was in ill health. He washes their feet and welcomes them into the tent to break bread with him.”
Safdie understands this impulse of hospitality. After the land was bought for the Skirball but before funds were raised to build, he said, “If there’s no money, we’ll put up a tent and serve everyone tea and coffee.”

Skirball Centre

Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, architecture by Moshe Safdie

A continent apart, the non-profit Public Theater is a secular institution whose mission is also devoted to increasing accessibility and fostering public engagement. The late Joe Papp, founder of the Public in 1954, said, “Theater is a social force, not just entertainment.” Which is why I attended a press lunch: to find out about a new initiative called Public Works, a very New Deal and Great Society-type venture.

In collaboration with five partner groups including ex-cons, senior citizens, teens, children and domestic workers, a free version of The Tempest will be performed September 6th – 8th in Central Park with only five professional actors. The idea is that the need for communal stories is as basic as the need for food and shelter, and that the community should be the agent of creating and performing its own stories. Hence, 206 amateur performers from all niches of the city will supplement the Shakespeare-inspired musical.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, updates Papp’s comment, saying, “Theater isn’t a commodity, it’s an experience.” The Tempest experience will include Mexican tap dancers, Japanese taiko drummers, a gospel choir, a brass band playing Balkan gypsy music, taxi drivers and a soap bubble artist. Inclusive? Yes!

The Public’s shows are already ecumenical, for it produces Shakespeare and the classics alongside musicals, contemporary and experimental drama. Like Theodora, who began life as an actress, the Public asserts that theater is an essential cultural force to spur dialogue and connection. “We’re trying to make theater that matters to the society that it’s a part of,” Eustis said. Two rivers feed democracy, he added: “artistic freedom and social justice.”

Like the Skirball, the Public’s mission is reflected not only in its programs but in its architecture. Ennead Architects renovated its downtown home to express the idea of welcome to all segments of society, opening up the building to the street and transforming the lobby into a public piazza for mingling and discussion.

Its vision is to bring free theater to all parts of New York City, to all demographic and economic groups – from prisons to schools, parks, homeless shelters, and centers for at-risk youth and the elderly. In ancient Greece where it originated, in Elizabethan England, in the 1930s in the U.S., and in street theater of 1960s protest movements, theater was not an expensive, spectacle-laden bauble or an emblem of social superiority. It played an essential role in expressing values and aspirations of the common people. It had collective meaning.

So what does Public Works’ participatory performance have to do with improving society? “It is animated by the idea that theater is a place of possibility, where the boundaries that separate us from each other in the rest of life can fall away,” as the Public’s press release says. “It seeks to create a space where we can not only reflect on the world as it is, but we can actually propose new possibilities for what our society might be.”

It’s a dream Theodora shared: not to be limited by what is, but to conceive of how things might be.

To see a preview of The Tempest groups’ participation, check out this video:

This photograph shows some of the community participants in front of the Public Theater.

This photograph shows some of the community participants in front of the Public Theater.