Theater matters because democracy matters. Theater is the essential art form of democracy, and we know this because they were born in the same city.
In the late 6th century BC, the idea of Western democracy was born. It was, of course, a very partial and flawed democracy, but the idea that power should stem from the consent of the governed, that power should flow from below to above, not the other way around, was born in that decade. And in that same decade, somebody—legend has it, somebody named Thespis—invented the idea of dialogue.
What does that mean, to invent dialogue? Well, we know that the Festival of Dionysus gathered the entire citizenry of Athens on the side of the Acropolis, and they would listen to music, they would watch dancing, and they would have stories told as part of the Festival of Dionysus. And storytelling is much like what's happening right now: I'm standing up here, the unitary authority, and I am talking to you. And you are sitting back, and you are receiving what I have to say. And you may disagree with it, you may think I'm an insufferable fool, you may be bored to death, but that dialogue is mostly taking place inside your own head.
But what happens if, instead of me talking to you—and Thespis thought of this—I just shift 90 degrees to the left, and I talk to another person onstage with me? Everything changes, because at that moment, I'm not the possessor of truth; I'm a guy with an opinion. And I'm talking to somebody else. And you know what? That other person has an opinion too, and it's drama, remember, conflict—they disagree with me. There's a conflict between two points of view. And the thesis of that is that the truth can only emerge in the conflict of different points of view. It's not the possession of any one person. And if you believe in democracy, you have to believe that. If you don't believe that, you're an autocrat who is putting up with democracy. But that's the basic thesis of democracy, that the conflict of different points of views leads to the truth.
What's the other thing that's happening? I'm not asking you to sit back and listen to me. I'm asking you to lean forward and imagine my point of view—what this looks like and feels like to me as a character. And then I'm asking you to switch your mind and imagine what it feels like to the other person talking. I'm asking you to exercise empathy. And the idea that truth comes from the collision of different ideas and the emotional muscle of empathy are the necessary tools for democratic citizenship.
What else happens? The third thing really is you, is the community itself, is the audience. And you know from personal experience that when you go to the movies, you walk into a movie theater, and if it's empty, you're delighted, because nothing's going to be between you and the movie. You can spread out, put your legs over the top of the stadium seats, eat your popcorn and just enjoy it. But if you walk into a live theater and you see that the theater is half full, your heart sinks. You're disappointed immediately, because whether you knew it or not, you were coming to that theater to be part of an audience. You were coming to have the collective experience of laughing together, crying together, holding your breath together to see what's going to happen next. You may have walked into that theater as an individual consumer, but if the theater does its job, you've walked out with a sense of yourself as part of a whole, as part of a community. That's built into the DNA of my art form.
Twenty-five hundred years later, Joe Papp decided that the culture should belong to everybody in the United States of America, and that it was his job to try to deliver on that promise. He created Free Shakespeare in the Park. And Free Shakespeare in the Park is based on a very simple idea, the idea that the best theater, the best art that we can produce, should go to everybody and belong to everybody, and to this day, every summer night in Central Park, 2,000 people are lining up to see the best theater we can provide for free. It's not a commercial transaction.
In 1967, 13 years after he figured that out, he figured out something else, which is that the democratic circle was not complete by just giving the people the classics. We had to actually let the people create their own classics and take the stage. And so in 1967, Joe opened the Public Theater downtown on Astor Place, and the first show he ever produced was the world premiere of "Hair." That's the first thing he ever did that wasn't Shakespeare. Clive Barnes in The Times said that it was as if Mr. Papp took a broom and swept up all the refuse from the East Village streets onto the stage at the Public. He didn't mean it complementarily, but Joe put it up in the lobby, he was so proud of it.
And what the Public Theater did over the next years with amazing shows like "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," "A Chorus Line," and—here's the most extraordinary example I can think of: Larry Kramer's savage cry of rage about the AIDS crisis, "The Normal Heart." Because when Joe produced that play in 1985, there was more information about AIDS in Frank Rich's review in the New York Times than the New York Times had published in the previous four years. Larry was actually changing the dialogue about AIDS through writing this play, and Joe was by producing it. I was blessed to commission and work on Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," and when doing that play and along with "Normal Heart," we could see that the culture was actually shifting, and it wasn't caused by the theater, but the theater was doing its part to change what it meant to be gay in the United States. And I'm incredibly proud of that.
When I took over Joe's old job at the Public in 2005, I realized one of the problems we had was a victim of our own success, which is: Shakespeare in the Park had been founded as a program for access, and it was now the hardest ticket to get in New York City. People slept out for two nights to get those tickets. What was that doing? That was eliminating 98 percent of the population from even considering going to it. So we refounded the mobile unit and took Shakespeare to prisons, to homeless shelters, to community centers in all five boroughs and even in New Jersey and Westchester County. And that program proved something to us that we knew intuitively: people's need for theater is as powerful as their desire for food or for drink. It's been an extraordinary success, and we've continued it.
And then there was yet another barrier that we realized we weren't crossing, which is a barrier of participation. And the idea, we said, is: How can we turn theater from being a commodity, an object, back into what it really is—a set of relationships among people? And under the guidance of the amazing Lear deBessonet, we started the Public Works program, which now every summer produces these immense Shakespearean musical pageants, where Tony Award-winning actors and musicians are side by side with nannies and domestic workers and military veterans and recently incarcerated prisoners, amateurs and professionals, performing together on the same stage. And it's not just a great social program, it's the best art that we do. And the thesis of it is that artistry is not something that is the possession of a few. Artistry is inherent in being a human being. Some of us just get to spend a lot more of our lives practicing it. And then occasionally—you get a miracle like "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel's extraordinary retelling of the foundational story of this country through the eyes of the only Founding Father who was a bastard immigrant orphan from the West Indies. And what Lin was doing is exactly what Shakespeare was doing. He was taking the voice of the people, the language of the people, elevating it into verse, and by doing so, ennobling the language and ennobling the people who spoke the language. And by casting that show entirely with a cast of black and brown people, what Lin was saying to us, he was reviving in us our greatest aspirations for the United States, our better angels of America, our sense of what this country could be, the inclusion that was at the heart of the American Dream. And it unleashed a wave of patriotism in me and in our audience, the appetite for which is proving to be insatiable.
But there was another side to that, and it's where I want to end, and it's the last story I want to talk about. Some of you may have heard that Vice President-elect Pence came to see "Hamilton" in New York. And when he came in, some of my fellow New Yorkers booed him. And beautifully, he said, "That's what freedom sounds like."
And at the end of the show, we read what I feel was a very respectful statement from the stage, and Vice President-elect Pence listened to it, but it sparked a certain amount of outrage, a tweetstorm, and also an internet boycott of "Hamilton" from outraged people who had felt we had treated him with disrespect. I looked at that boycott and I said, we're getting something wrong here. All of these people who have signed this boycott petition, they were never going to see "Hamilton" anyway. It was never going to come to a city near them. If it could come, they couldn't afford a ticket, and if they could afford a ticket, they didn't have the connections to get that ticket. They weren't boycotting us; we had boycotted them. And if you look at the red and blue electoral map of the United States, and if I were to tell you, "Oh, the blue is what designates all of the major nonprofit cultural institutions," I'd be telling you the truth. You'd believe me. We in the culture have done exactly what the economy, what the educational system, what technology has done, which is turn our back on a large part of the country.
So this idea of inclusion, it has to keep going. Next fall, we are sending out on tour a production of Lynn Nottage's brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Sweat." Years of research in Redding, Pennsylvania led her to write this play about the deindustrialization of Pennsylvania: what happened when steel left, the rage that was unleashed, the tensions that were unleashed, the racism that was unleashed by the loss of jobs. We're taking that play and we're touring it to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. We're partnering with community organizations there to try and make sure not only that we reach the people that we're trying to reach, but that we find ways to listen to them back and say, "The culture is here for you, too." Because—we in the culture industry, we in the theater, have no right to say that we don't know what our job is. It's in the DNA of our art form. Our job "... is to hold up, as 'twere, a mirror to nature; to show scorn her image, to show virtue her appearance, and the very age its form and pressure." Our job is to try to hold up a vision to America that shows not only who all of us are individually, but that welds us back into the commonality that we need to be, the sense of unity, the sense of whole, the sense of who we are as a country. That's what the theater is supposed to do, and that's what we need to try to do as well as we can. Thank you very much.