July 9, 2007, was the first night I truly recognized the power and reach of the Public Theater. But my journey with the Public—and to that evening—started long before I’d even set foot in the NoHo theater.
It started in January 1998 when I was producing Freak, starring John Leguizamo, on Broadway (my first Broadway show!). I wanted all of our tickets to be affordable so that anyone who chose to could see it. My producing partners and I were very worried that, like at most Broadway shows, the wealthier people would be sitting in the orchestra and the patrons with less money would be in the mezzanine or balcony. In an effort to ensure that the audience was diverse as possible, we worked hard to incorporate targeted discounts to make sure that people from all walks of life were sitting next to one another. We also made all 250 seats in the balcony $10 during previews and $17.50 once the show opened. You didn’t have to be a student; these ticket prices were available to everyone. People would show up to the box office counting their quarters; that was when I knew that our plan had worked. We regularly sold out the whole house, including our standing-room section, and our theater was as diverse as any I had ever seen on Broadway. I knew in my heart that for every show I produced after this, I would always make sure that we scaled the house in this way. I never believed that Broadway should be considered a luxury.
I loved that people from all walks of life were sitting next to one another.
I kept that mission alive when I created the Summer Play Festival six years later; all of the tickets were once again just $10. I brought SPF to the Public a few years later. Although I didn’t know it then, it was the place where I would be able to fulfill my dreams on a much larger scale.
As I got to know the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, I realized that we had the same belief: Culture belongs to everyone.
I realized that we had the same belief: Culture belongs to everyone.
One of the first shows that I fell in love with at the Public was In Darfur, a play about the genocide in Sudan. It was in the theater’s smallest space, the Shiva Theater, and I wanted more people to have a chance to see it, as it was an incredibly moving piece. I reached out to Oskar and told him I’d love to help the play reach a wider audience. He called me a few days later and said he wanted to present it in the Delacorte Theater, the Public’s 1,800-seat open-air venue in Central Park, for one night only—and for free. Did I want to be involved? Yes!
The night we staged that show at the Delacorte—July 9, 2007—was incredible. People from all over the city were able to see an important, touching, and wonderful play about something that mattered, for free, in a beautiful theater in the middle of the most iconic park in the country. As I like to say now: The best, for free, for all.
The night we staged that show—July 9, 2007—was when I realized the power and reach of the Public.
I joined the Public Theater’s board of trustees soon after and have been working with it ever since. In December 2013, I was voted in as board chair; a few weeks later, I had surgery for breast cancer. I was out of commission for a few months and trying to figure out how to get back on track. I remember one day I had just returned to my habit of meeting one new person a day, and I was sitting in a Le Pain Quotidien (my favorite place to work and meet people) and wondering how I would do the job in an Ari way. How could I best help? My excitement comes out when I am sharing wonderful things with people; I looked around and thought: Everyone in this coffee shop should be affiliated with the Public Theater, either as an artist, an audience member, or a donor.
Everyone in this coffee shop should be affiliated with the Public Theater, either as an artist, an audience member, or a donor.
Ever since, I’ve seen my role as engaging as many people as I can in the Public’s work in one of those three ways—by simply meeting with people and sharing my enthusiasm, hosting fundraisers, organizing our annual gala, brainstorming outreach initiatives, and tons more—and helping Oskar and Patrick Willingham, the executive director, fulfill the Public’s mission. We want to be sure that we are always showing the best, for free, for all.