When the cast of “To Kill a Mockingbird” filed into the arena on Wednesday, wearing suits and dresses reminiscent of Alabama in the 1930s, the crowd erupted as if the actors were Knicks coming out of the locker room.
When Atticus Finch asked a barrage of tough questions of Mayella Ewell, the white teenager who had accused a black man of rape, they burst into applause, as if the tide had turned in the game. And when Scout Finch, one of the play’s central narrators, called out the man behind a white Ku Klux Klan hood, the crowd oohed as if their team had stolen back the ball.
For the first time, Madison Square Garden opened its doors to Broadway, and with it came 18,000 New York City public school students and chaperones to watch a play that has only ever been performed on the Shubert Theater stage.
The classic story of Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer who defends a black man in a racist town, was told under the championship flags of the New York Knicks (who have played their own tragedy there for years) and the Rangers. And with a new venue and a younger audience came new standards of theater decorum: The middle and high school students groaned when things went badly for the protagonists and cheered shamelessly at insults lobbed at the town’s most virulent racists.
“There’s such an intense energy,” said Jenna Weinberg, a theater teacher at M.S. 839 in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. “It’s a room full of young people who don’t stop themselves from reacting out loud. They’re not worried about what they’re supposed to act like in a theater.”
The intention was to reimagine the play — based on the Harper Lee classic and adapted by the Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin — for a contemporary audience. Scott Rudin, the main producer, said he wanted to find a way to ensure this drama about racial injustice reached a racially diverse audience.
Last year, the production offered $10 tickets to schools, but Mr. Rudin said he imagined an even bigger gesture: one of New York’s largest spaces filled with students from across the city. So Barry Diller, a co-producer, called his friend James L. Dolan, the chief executive of the Madison Square Garden Company, who agreed to the plan for free.
The staging had to be radically reimagined for the cavernous space. At the Shubert Theater, the various sets — the courtroom, the Finches’ porch — are moved in and out of view. At the Garden, the settings were laid out across a long, narrow deck, and the actors walked from scene to scene.
The logistical concerns were endless. Mr. Rudin ticked through some: “Where does the cast go? How do the kids get in? How do you ticket it?”
He added, “What happens if, of the 18,000 kids, 5,000 of them wanted to go to the bathroom?”
(Some solutions: Part of the cast prepared in the visiting team’s locker room, and high school choirs were invited to sing during intermission to help keep students in the arena.)
The play brought its regular cast, including the actor Ed Harris, who took over the role of Atticus Finch from Jeff Daniels in November. He wasn’t the only celebrity present. Spike Lee was M.C., opening with the story of his own education in New York public schools, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, also spoke.
As for the students, only about 3 percent of the public middle and high schoolers could fit, so the Department of Education granted admission to the first schools to respond to the invitations. The city intervened to make sure that all boroughs were well-represented, as well as schools that specialize in teaching students with disabilities, said Peter Avery, the director of theater for the department.
Some students had been assigned to read the original novel, but the drama diverges in some ways from Lee’s work. The play is framed around the trial, while readers do not get there until about halfway through the book. And the story’s most prominent black characters — Calpurnia and Tom Robinson — are allowed more opportunity in the play to voice their frustrations about racial injustice.
The racist lines in “Mockingbird” can sound much more jarring when spat out onstage as opposed to being words on a page. And the students didn’t hold back their shock.
During a particularly odious rant from the play’s main villain, Bob Ewell, murmurs of disapproval swelled to gasps as he used a racist slur over and over. Then, when Scout’s brother, Jem, calls Ewell an “ignorant son of a bitch,” the reactions transformed into uproarious cheers.
It was a performance where emotional reactions were let loose and actors had little privacy, as they were unable to fully exit a space surrounded on all sides by gazing students.
On any given night, Taylor Trensch, who plays Dill, a friend of Scout and Jem’, has to block out the reality around him and imagine he is in the small town of Maycomb, Ala.
But this time, the audience was a dozen times bigger than usual, and the theater was not quite so intimate.
“There’s one moment when I looked up and it said ‘Bud Light District’ over some of the seats,” Mr. Trensch said. “Kind of made it hard to keep yourself in 1930s Alabama.”