Oskar Eustis: Putting the Public Back in Theater
Friday, September 28, 2012
New York is the epicenter of American theater, but it's not just because of Broadway. A mid-size theater complex downtown is arguably the most important incubator for new theater today: The Public Theater. Fifty years ago its founder, Joseph Papp, started Shakespeare in the Park, offering world-class productions outdoors each summer for free. And in the years since, the Public Theater has premiered dozens of groundbreaking works, including Hair, A Chorus Line, That Championship Season, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, and Passing Strange.
Oskar Eustis is The Public’s artistic director, and a fierce advocate for his art form. "The theater is not a piece of entertainment that you put in a little commodity factory and you use to distract you,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “It's actually at its best when it's roiling up the issues of the world around it and interacting with them and performing the world in order to try and change it." Kurt asks if he sees dangers in political theater that starts with a message. "The theater is a terrible place for trying to sell a point of view,” Eustis explains. “It's a beautiful place for raising those kinds of oppositional points of view and putting them in dialogue with each other. Art isn't art if it's simply making a statement."
Eustis initially trained as an actor, but found he was better suited to direct and produce. “You have to listen to what the world wants from you without losing what you want, but you have to negotiate with that,” he often tells students. “People who are too inflexible about what they want and won’t listen to the world, or people who just try to give the world what they want, don’t end up happy.”
Some of The Public’s shows have been huge hits, but Eustis says that a great theater can’t live on ticket sales. Shrinking NEA funds, he thinks, have resulted in “blander, less interesting, less distinct” regional theaters, with seasons dominated by repeats of successful shows. In the last few years, regional theaters "became more conservative because they were more dependent on ticket sales and the audience. And that’s the thing that I think a great subsidy system can do. It can liberate these theaters to become more individuated, more distinctly themselves, and that’s good for everybody.”
Eustis fervently believes in theater as an agent of change. He points to Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the first major play about the AIDS epidemic, produced before the disease was recognized as a crisis. “Joe kept that play running for a year even though for months … it was losing money. And he said, ‘We are not going to shut this down until the world catches up to it,'” Eustis remembers. “At that moment, Larry had a target that was big enough to justify the enormous theatrical wrath and intelligence he brought on it. And that play helped change the world.”
AquariusAlbum: Hair: The Original Broadway Cast RecordingLabel: RCA Victor
AmericaAlbum: Dave Grusin Presents West Side StoryLabel: Encoded Music
OneComposer: Don PippinAlbum: A Chorus LineLabel: Sony Classical
Arlington HillArtist: Original Broadway CastAlbum: Passing Strange [Soundtrack]