The noise builds gradually in the Seattle Repertory Theatre rehearsal room where preparations are underway for “As You Like It,” the second production in the Rep’s nascent Public Works program. Like 2017’s “The Odyssey,” the cast of “As You Like It” numbers close to 100. In this packed room, a din is inevitable.
“As You Like It,” a playful Shakespeare crowd-pleaser about persecuted royals fleeing to the Forest of Arden, features a handful of Equity actors in the principal roles. But most of the cast consists of nonprofessionals: community members from ages 5 to 86 who came to the Rep through one of the eight organizations the theater partners with for its Public Works program, which seeks to draw people to participate in theater through free classes, workshops and the creation of collaborative stage shows.
The culmination of the program is nearly here: a mainstage musical where the Bagley Wright stage will swell with activity Sept. 6-8. Online reservations for free tickets are full, but there may be standby availability.
In the rehearsal room, the powerhouse voice of Shaunyce Omar leads a rendition of a jubilant musical number that climaxes with a soaring refrain. “Still I will love,” the ensemble sings over and over. Choreographer Kathryn Van Meter and music director R.J. Tancioco pause to puzzle over how to incorporate a new element: the rhythms of the Seattle Hand Drummers, a group open to percussionists of all skill levels.
People wait quietly during the lull … for a few seconds. Restless noise builds until director Timothy McCuen Piggee silently raises a hand. The crowd stills, and the process repeats. They take the song from the top. Then, Van Meter and Tancioco have something else to discuss.
“Can everyone just, like, talk with a new friend?” Van Meter asks. “Make a new friend.”
The room explodes with noise all over again. Handshakes are exchanged. The name tags hung on aqua lanyards around everyone’s neck are put to good use.
This isn’t just a time-filling exercise. After a mere three weeks of rehearsal, there are still plenty of castmates in the huge ensemble to meet.
For community member Cynthia Linet, 81, “As You Like It” offers a chance to reconnect with friends she made during the inaugural Public Works production.
“Those of us who were in ‘The Odyssey’ (are) just hugging and kissing and so happy to be together again,” she said. “And you don’t get that anywhere — especially not in theater. You do not get that. But here, it’s the norm.”
Linet, who studied at the Paul Mann Actors Workshop in New York as a teenager, rattles off snapshots of a fascinating life: a period with religious commune the Love Family during her first stint in Seattle, a law career in Hawaii, a vast portfolio as an artist (her two main subjects: guns and historical erotica).
In “The Odyssey,” Linet had a speaking role. “I actually got applause at the end of one of my little scenes,” she said. “I was so shocked, I almost smiled and took a bow.”
She doesn’t have any lines this time around, but it’ll be a showcase all the same.
“It’s giving me a platform to shine, because I have a lot of movement, and I’m very excited about what’s going on,” she said. “(And) my art is in the show — two of my paintings. Not erotica, oh god.” She cracks up laughing. “Flowers.”
Linet was one of the first people Public Works director Angie Kamel met when she replaced program creator Marya Sea Kaminski, who left to become artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater in 2018.
“I was a little nervous because it was so early on,” Kamel said. “(Linet) just put me at ease. It was just like an instant connection. You were showing me the spirit of Public Works by just saying hello to me.”
Kamel, who worked as an associate production manager at the Rep from 2009-2012, sees the emergence of Public Works as part of a necessary transformation.
“The need for theater and the culture in our city has changed,” she said. “I feel like our theater as a whole is stepping up in a different way than we did 10 years ago.
“As theater makers coming up in the ’90s, we were told, these are the things you have to do to get ahead in the theater. (We realized) ‘oh, we don’t have to do it that way. We can do things differently. We can be more inclusive. We can open the door to somebody who hasn’t done this before.’ ”
In partnering with organizations like Jubilee Women’s Center and Compass Housing Alliance, Public Works seeks to build community through art, teaching theater fundamentals, offering free tickets to shows and organizing get-togethers that might feature a potluck or karaoke. This year’s program was funded by donations and grants totaling more than $750,000.
The Rep is one of 11 affiliated regional theaters in the U.S. operating under the Public Works name and modeled on the program started by the Public Theater in New York. Like “The Odyssey,” this new musical adaptation of “As You Like It” (adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery) played at the Public first.
“As You Like It” director Piggee was “bowled over and laid out” by the opening-night performance of “The Odyssey,” he said. In taking on this year’s Public Works production, he’s relied on advice from Kaminski: “It will never be perfect, and that’s the beauty of it. You cannot fail.”
“It’s not about my ego,” Piggee said. “I don’t think I’m here to prove any points other than being the best human being I can be at all times — and that part is demanding.”
Piggee echoes Kamel on Public Works’ transformational quality, turning the Rep from a place on the Seattle Center campus to one that has a presence in the wider community. The transformation is personal, too.
“As I move through the world, I find that I’m more patient, I can take the time to look people in the eye, I try to take the care to listen if someone has an issue or a problem,” he said. “I am forever changed by this.”
“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare. Sept. 6-8; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; free online tickets are sold out but standby options may be available by phone; 206-443-2222; seattlerep.org