Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater since 2005, spoke about the ways theater (and the Public itself) has been shaken up during this time of crisis, in a conversation with critic Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Undefeated, for the 2020 virtual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association. The following is a heavily edited* transcript
McDonald: We are obviously having this conference at a time of immense upheaval in American history, as well as in the world of theater. What have you been thinking about in terms of the role that theater has to play in this moment?
Eustis: When George Floyd was murdered, it was a reminder that history can move really fast sometimes….You could feel the culture shifting….So now I think the real struggle is how do we take the progressive radical energy that was unleashed?
“When we reopen, we have to be better than before we closed”
How do we make sure that as life returns to something called normal, when the theater comes back, when the COVID epidemic is in the rear view mirror, when we have a halfway decent human being as president, how do we actually institutionalize those gains and not just fall back? …When we reopen, we have to be better than before we closed. That’s daunting, but really, really exciting at the same time.
In the production of Much Ado About Nothing that Kenny Leon directed you’ve got the enormous Stacey Abrams, 2020 banner.
…It was specific in exactly the way a work of art is supposed to be specific. , Bernard Malamud said that all art has to have an address. I think Kenny knows the street address of that house with the Stacey Abrams banner; that’s absolutely set in territory that Kenny lives in, And one of the beautiful things about the production is you could feel how completely lived in the whole experience was. It didn’t remotely feel like those bad concept productions, which I’m probably guilty of on occasion. It felt organic, even the language sounded like language is supposed to sound. Nobody on that stage wished they were British
Stacey Abrams came to see the show and we have this fantastic picture of her onstage with the cast underneath the banner. It was more relevant than my theater usually gets to be.
You guys are shaping up a sort of new relevance for this era. In December, you announced two new associate artistic directors, Saheem Ali and Shanta Thake . What roles will they play and why these two particular individuals?
Shanta has been with the public theater longer than I have; I think 18 years…she is one of the most talented and brilliant curators…she is.representing the values of the theater through a very different point of view than mine. Earlier today, we were sort of joking and sort of telling the truth about how different our tastes are when it comes to specific shows.
Saheem was a freelance director who I got to know as a student ten years ago. He was not only a deeply talented director but a real leader.
To be honest about it. I feel like we were pushed by reality. We were pushed by the move towards racial confrontation, racial reckoning, to recognize things that were deficient in how we ran. Everybody else saw this years ago, but I realized that the model of the charismatic leader is deeply in the Public’s DNA. That was [Public founder] Joe Papp. That was [former artistic director] George Wolfe. But it is actually not a correct expression of the Public’s values, which have to do with equity and equality and democracy and power sharing, and the belief that the best decisions come in the conflict between different parts of you.
I feel like I’m at the early stages of trying to reform that aspect.
“I think I’m necessary now”
Some of the critiques that have emerged from the We See You, White American Theater movement have been quite pointed. So my question to you is: What makes you the right person to lead the Public through this moment?
That’s a really good question. It’s one I’ve asked myself a lot. And the answer that I’ve come up with is that I am the right person to lead the public through this COVID crisis and enormous economic pressure.
I’ve considered, as every artistic director I know has considered, stepping down. But the reality is if I would have stepped down, I would be betraying the obligation that I have to lead the Public Theater. That’s not a question of anything about me.
It’s just because I’ve been there for 15 years. I think the Public Theater needs to get through this crisis. Once the crisis has passed, we’ll re-examine it again. I won’t be alone in reexamining it; many, many people have been happy to tell me their opinions about this.
I think I am necessary right now. Will I be necessary in two years? We’ll see.
But this isn’t just about who replaces me. It’s about, can we actually replace the way power is operating within the theater while I’m still here? Can we actually set up a model of distributive leadership?
When you talk about Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Brown, you don’t say who’s president now; those institutions have identities for good and for ill that are formed way larger than any individual leader.
When we spoke in the Spring, you mentioned the possibility of resurrecting a sort of New Deal for the arts, a Works Progress Administration to stop this free fall. Have you been speaking to anybody in the incoming administration about what it might look like, and what’s needed?
Yes. And I would say I probably spend about a third of my time.nowadays doing various kinds of advocacy, lobbying, coalition building, I’m working with a lot of other people who are really smart and really dedicated…We haven’t had enough success for me to do any bragging. But what I can say about this is that it feels like we are at one of those inflection points in history. We’re still in this moment where the choice of what path we’re going to go down is very much in question…One possibility is that we will treat the arts, not just as a decoration,but as something that has an economic validity for the country as a whole.
I hope we can get a big government employment program for the theater. I hope we can get the government to buy into the idea that the theater is really important. But the second theater returns, we have to prove that we matter — that we’re improving the lives of people. We have to demonstrate to people that the theater is a necessity, not a luxury. And if we don’t do that, we don’t deserve the support of the nation.
One of the things that comes up is expanding the audience for this art form, making it less Manhattan-centric, meeting people literally where they are. Much as I adore Shakespeare in the Park, I wonder: Is it possible?
Have you thought about expanding that model to say parks in Brooklyn or in the Bronx or in Queens or Staten Island?
That’s exactly what I think. I’m very proud of all of our efforts at diversifying the audiences and reaching people. But the mobile unit is the only program we have where the composition of the audience exactly matches the demographics of New York City. That’s because we go to where people are. We don’t insist they come to us.
Our plan and our hope is to triple down on that this summer. We are assuming that outdoors is where we’re going to be able to perform first….And we are trying to cook up ways that not only can we bring shows to communities, but we can actually interact and embed ourselves more deeply in those communities and really be of the people as well as for the people.
“In a democracy, the arts should be funded by the government…”
Disrupting the structures of power, I imagine, is quite an enormous challenge.given the traditions of philanthropy that have shaped our arts culture, particularly in New York. It’s left to a bunch of very well-moneyed people. whether they feel like donating money and how much. How do we move away from that? I think of a parallel to campaign finance, where Bernie Sanders pushed to the fore the idea of many small donors.
The real answer to the question how could we change the funding is we change the ownership of the means of production in this country. That is not an option that’s available to me right now. So everything is a form of compromising, juggling. We work very hard on our small donations and we get a lot of donations. (If we only take small donations) the Public Theater would be a quarter of its size. We are determined not to depend on the box office, and raise prices to the point that people can’t afford to come. The good news in New York is that there are a lot of people of means who have very progressive ideas.
At the same time, I’m not an innocent. I can’t say that it makes no difference where the money comes from. Of course it makes a difference. My tradition is to ask: Are you making the world better? Are you changing the world?
In every society we know of, art has been funded by the dominant class in that society. In monarchies, it’s funded by the crown. In oligarchies, it’s funded by rich individuals. In a democracy, the arts should be funded by the government because the government should be the expression of the people. God bless the National Endowment for the Arts for existing. But its budget is considerably less than that of military marching bands.
What would you like to see from the City of New York?
I’ve lived in and run theaters in seven different cities across the country. And New York is the first place I’ve been that the entire government understands the importance of the arts to New York –not just the mayor’s office, the city council, everybody.
New York City gives us multiples of what we get from New York State, from the federal government. A single thing that I wish the city would do is get totally serious about artists’ affordable housing, because the housing crisis in the city is terrible.
When I arrived in the city in the early 1970s, the artist in residence program allowed artists to live in spaces that before that were illegal to live in.
I moved into a loft on Great Jones Street where the rent was 500 bucks a month for 2,500 square feet, shared with five roommates, so we each paid $100. I came to New York from Minnesota partially because I could live cheaply. Crazy, right?
I’m terribly worried that New York is in the process of pricing itself out of being a place where young artists can live and work.
Westbeth was a great program, but most of the people living there are my age now. I think we want something more expansive than that because we don’t want just one place where artists live. It’s got to be more widely dispersed and embedded in mixed-use neighborhoods.
“…there’s got to be ways to say to artists: We want you here in town..”
I remember something that Dominique Serrand, who was artistic director of Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, said many years ago, that the city of Minneapolis should give houses to artists who have committed to staying in the city for 10 years. That idea never got off the ground, but here in New York, there’s got to be ways to say to artists: We want you here in town. It is not simply your private problem, how to afford your rent.
“Boy. I wish I had an answer about that, because I’m worried sick about it”
This is a conference of critics and theater journalists. It’s getting more difficult for critics to make a living. What ideas do you have about the role that critics play not just in the continued relevance of theater, but also our own jobs.
Boy. I wish I had an answer about that, because I’m worried sick about it.
You know, I hate the New York Times. They’ve actually said bad things about my shows. I hate them. But on the other hand, when you start facing the idea that maybe there wouldn’t be the Times, it’s incredibly upsetting. The problem is figuring out the economic engine to support intellectual content. If we had to think of nonprofit ways of supporting critics, I’d be entirely in favor of it. Obviously we can’t hire critics because this editorial independence thing is really important. But man, it would be great if, I don’t know, maybe service organizations like Theater Communications Group could hire critics at large.
The intellectual discourse about our work is an essential part of the work. People have to talk to each other about what they saw and it’s the talking to each other. that’s actually the cultural event. We don’t want the experience to be confined. We want the experience to be the next morning when you’re reading the review and the fight with your friend about that show. We figured out as a culture that if we valued philosophy, we had to make a home for professional philosophers in the university system. We should figure out the same kind of thing with critics. We need them as a culture.
You helped usher “Hamilton” forth into the culture. And that subsequently led to many Tonys. This year we have Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, that has garnered the most Tony nominations than any play in Broadway history. It almost feels like these two works are telling us a story about where the country was and where it is. At the center of “Slave Play” in particular is a frustration not just with white supremacy but with a certain kind of white liberalism. What are you saying to your fellow white people that’s maybe different from what you were saying to them in the era of Hamilton?
It is time for a sea change in whose experiences are centered and who gets to see themselves as the subjects of history, not the objects of history
Jeremy O. Harris is one of a generation of black writers who are unabashedly radical and fearlessly experimental. And that those two things are not in opposition to each other. They are the same thing. The radicalism is an aesthetic radicalism at the same time. That’s the most thrilling thing happening in the American theater right now. I think it’s going to affect all of us in ways that none of us can really predict.
Is there any chance in the future that we’ll see a production of say “Dutchman” or “Blues for Mister Charlie?”
Yes. I’ve been spending a lot of time with James Baldwin recently, as I hope everybody in America is rediscovering Baldwin. I’ll be shocked if we don’t have some news on that front.
(The questions that follow are from other ATCA members)
Any comments on the model suggested by the American Shakespeare Center of hiring and paying a company of theater, artists, and administrators so everyone has a reliable source of income and benefits?
“The nonprofit movement supports administrators…but it doesn’t support theater artists. It’s insane.”
When the nonprofit movement was started, it was founded to provide a home for artists, with acting companies. For economic reasons primarily, that’s disintegrated. Now the nonprofit theater movement supports tens of thousands of people with middle-class living and almost none of them are artists. It supports administrators, marketing folks, development folks. But it doesn’t support theater artists. It’s insane. We’ve allowed that to happen by drifting along with the rest of the country and the rightward shift of the last 40 years.
We are fighting very hard that the whatever new relief package passes for the theater it’s got to not just be for the staff, but for the independent contractors who make up our workforce — actors, designers, stage managers, running crews.
“We have to stress that everybody can make theater”
Do you think that a focus on the arts at the same intensity as the focus on sports could shift the balance of funding?
My friend Ben Cameron, who used to run TCG, used to say you could trace the explosion of sports attendance to Kennedy’s physical fitness program in the early Sixties. Once it became a national mandate for everybody to participate in exercise and sports as kids, all these people grew up to be the audiences for professional sports.
Now that may be a slightly romantic telling of the story. But I think there’s a key there. We have to stress that everybody can make theater. Some of us who are professionals are lucky enough to spend all day every day doing it. But that’s not because we’re artists and other people aren’t; everybody has the ability to perform. Aristotle said imitation is the earliest and most pleasurable form of learning. And that’s what we do. We imitate, we act.
And so somehow harnessing people, not just to appreciate what the professionals do, but to continue past school participating in the art form not just as consumers, is going to be key to the future.
I’m so glad that Hamilton is streaming on Disney, and What the Constitution means to Me is on Amazon Prime. (But it’s) proselytizing audiences through other forms. What can we do to shake that up?
COVID has shaken it up. In the first week, the pandemic, I’m one of those people who stood in front of a camera and announced that we are not a television studio. We are not a film studio. We do live theater. Master thespian. And about two weeks after that, I realized what an idiot I was, that it was not my job to defend why we couldn’t do our art form. It was my job to try and achieve the mission of the theater through any means available to me. Which meant digital. So in the time since, we’ve done Zoom plays, we’ve done radio plays. We’ve made a film. We’ve done live streaming from Joe’s Pub. We’ve done all of these different digital things.
We have been viewed in 50 countries around the world and in every state of the union. And in numbers that dwarfs what we could fit inside a theater.
Now it doesn’t mean that I want to turn into a television studio. But what it means is that the ability of the digital realm to cut through geographic barriers, to cut through class barriers — because we do everything for free — I’m not going to give that up just because we can gather in rooms together again. I have to empower some younger people who are digital natives and can think in those terms in order to try to innovate in that area.
“I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by how much work there is to do…”
How can the lack of diversity in theater criticism be improved? And why was the situation for POC and Black artists and critics so dire before Black Lives Matter?
i’m not entirely qualified to talk about the field of theater criticism. What I can say is what Black Lives Matter did was pretty damn good.
And you can tell that a lot of places that still have theater critics are feeling the heat that their theater critics better not be as homogenous as they’ve been. I think the New York Times is front and center in that. Bringing heat from the streets is a great way to change the world
For us, we’ve been talking about this a lot. We’ve done pretty good on diversifying our staff. We haven’t done anywhere near as good a job as we should in diversifying leadership. We have to do an entire pipeline analysis beginning with recruitment. One of the things we’re talking about now is starting to go on recruiting trips every spring. We eliminated unpaid internships, because they’re a terrible form of discrimination. But then he also on the other end of the pipeline, what I’m realizing is that we have to really plan for people’s advancement within the theater. How are we going to help make sure that there’s a future for them? If we don’t plan, the people who stick it out are people who don’t have to worry about money. There’s a sea of hidden trust funds that the American theater has functioned on,
I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by how much work there is to do, to change our practices at the theater. But we were committed to trying to do it.
Should ATCA encourage wider coverage of community theater companies? It has seemed to me that many of us have had a prejudice against professional reviews of amateur performances.
Prejudice. Exactly the right word. I love that idea. It’s never occurred to me from a critical perspective
What I can say is the most important program that we’ve started in the last decade is the Public Works Program, which is where we work with community-based organizations in all five boroughs and every summer we put on this huge Shakespeare musical pageant. The casting consists of Tony award winning actors.side-by-side with folks who just got out of maximum security prisons after 25 years, or domestic workers. When we started this program, I knew it would be good social justice work. It would increase people’s self-esteem. What I didn’t realize it was going to be the best piece of theater I saw that year. And it’s been true every year since
With my Hamilton producer colleagues, I’ve been saying for some time that what we should do is release the rights to every high school in the country. I know that would have a revolutionary effect on the inner city, high school drama department that I went to, Central High in Minneapolis. And it wouldn’t hurt our audience it would increase it because we’d increase the sense of co-ownership.
Can you think of some great inventive, online experience that would not have happened if the pandemic did not force the new platform?
Almost everything that happened online wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic. Two zoom plays we produced: Nelson’s “What do we need to talk about?” And Eric Jensen and Jessica Blanks’ “The Line,” which was a docu-drama about frontline workers. What I loved about both of those is they were not plays that we filmed. They were plays that were conceived of and produce as plays for the medium.
What they lose of course is what we cherish in the theater, which is a live audience. But I was pretty proud of the productions. I think we’ll keep doing Zoom plays when we come back.
*The ninety-minute conversation contained much talk of politics and economics, lots of references to books and names of artists and authors and thinkers that are omitted here. There is also a condensing and slight combining of the answers.