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At NYC’s Public Theater, free Shakespeare — and a goal of making all of its productions free

NEW YORK —Artistic Director Oskar Eustis talks of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park — and remembers a mind-blowing ‘West Side Story’ and many second acts at the Guthrie during his youth in Minnesota.

MinnPost Asks: Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

NEW YORK — When I graduated from New York University in 2005, my first job was as a truck driver for the Public Theater‘s annual Shakespeare in the Park festival — a summer event in which New Yorkers wait in line for hours each day in hopes of nabbing a free ticket to whatever lavish production (featuring such acting giants as Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, and, currently, Al Pacino) is being presented at the lovely Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It was an amazing job, not only because I got tickets to the show without having to wait in line (which was excellent), but also because it was the same year the Public brought in its new artistic director, Oskar Eustis.

Each morning I’d see Eustis, an unmistakable figure with his intimidating build, overgrown goatee and wild hair, riding into work on his bicycle, sometimes wearing a tie and always clenching a cigar between his teeth. When I discovered he was a Minnesotan, like me, I couldn’t help but think of Paul Bunyan, but with a bike instead of a Blue Ox, and wielding a sharply honed mission to change the face of American theater in place of an ax.

Eustis, 51, grew up in Rochester and Minneapolis among a family of passionate activists and thinkers. As detailed in a recent New Yorker profile, his parents and stepparents were (and remain) deeply involved with academia (both his stepparents are professors at the University of Minnesota) as well as with the political left (his mother and stepfather are members of the Communist Party). Eustis’ entry point into the radical questions and opinions brought up at home was through live performance. He attended NYU as an actor, but it was his interest in dramaturgy (the structuring and contextualizing of a theatrical work) that led him to discover his knack for collaboration and directing.

During the 1980s, he famously worked with his close friend, playwright Tony Kushner, in developing the original production of “Angels in America,” as well as serving as resident dramaturg and, ultimately, artistic director at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco. Eustis joined the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles as associate artistic director in 1989, a position he held until 1994, when he became artistic director of the Trinity Theater in Providence, R.I. He remained there for 11 years before taking over at the Public. Upon arriving in New York, he made a bold announcement — that he hoped to make all productions at the Public free, not just those in the park. Not everybody thinks it’s a realistic vision, however.

I spoke with Eustis recently about the Public’s current Shakespeare in the Park productions — “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale” — as well as about his past and current connections to the Twin Cities theater scene.

MinnPost: When you were growing up in Rochester and Minneapolis during the ’60s and ’70s, what was it about the Twin Cities theatrical climate that grabbed you?

Oskar Eustis:
Three things played a significant role. The first was the Guthrie itself. I saw the second act of an awful lot of Guthrie plays. My dad lived on Groveland Terrace after my parents’ divorce, and I used to look out the window and wait until intermission and then go down and mingle with the crowds. Then I’d go in and see the second act of shows. This was about from the age of 11, and it was really fantastic. Then I got involved, briefly but very importantly, with the Children’s Theatre Company. I loved the company and the work, and that was when John Donahue was doing some really extraordinary things. And then the Walker brought in a lot of companies. The two that had a very big impact on me were an experimental theater company called the Iowa Theater Lab that was operating at that time out of Iowa City, and Mabou Mines. I did workshops at the Walker with both these companies, and I became very close with both of them. Forty years later I’m still close to all the leaders of Mabou Mines. So all of those things ended up being a significant part of my growing up.

MP: Your family was — and remains — very connected academically and politically to the far left. Was there a specific moment early on that compelled you toward live performance rather than academia or politics?

OE:
When I was maybe 6 or 7, I saw a production of “West Side Story” at the Rochester Civic Theatre that opened with the back of the theater opening up and an actual police car driving on stage to bust up the [rival gangs], and I tell you, my little mind was blown. That still sounds like something I would do in a show (laughs). It was incredible seeing that as a kid. It was very theatrical, but it was also, you know, the idea that you’re getting the whole community involved in making a play. That’s a really powerful idea, and I think that has stuck with me forever.

MP: You initially came to New York as an actor, and you even auditioned for [Public Theater founder] Joe Papp at one point. Did you start performing when you were young? What were the first productions you were involved in as a kid?

OE:
At the Children’s Theater Company. I did “Johnny Appleseed” and “The Netting of the Troupial,” which I think was in their ’71-’72 season. I would have been 12 or 13. And that was really the first time I acted. I don’t think I had even done any school plays before that.

MP: Do you stay engaged with the Twin Cities theater community? When you’re visiting are there certain theaters whose shows you make an extra effort to see?

OE:
I don’t see as much as I’d like. I’m closest to the Guthrie because it’s the really large theater there, and I have a lot of respect for [artistic director] Joe [Dowling]. We’re friends. The only time I’ve spent any time there, though, was during the Kushner [Celebration] because, of course, Tony [Kushner] and I are close. Peter Brosius, who runs the Children’s Theatre Company now, is an old colleague and friend who I just adore. But we haven’t done a project together. I will be very surprised if we don’t do one soon. I think he’s a really special artistic leader. And then Jack Reuler [the artistic director], at Mixed Blood. Both of us right now are quite focused on Native American theatrical works, and we’ve had a lot of dialogue back and forth about that, and shared some artists.

I was also at the Playwrights’ Center last year for a workshop. I haven’t been back since [former producing artistic director] Polly [Carl] left. But over the last 25 years, I doubt two years have gone by without me working at the Playwrights’ Center. It’s an amazing place, an amazing resource, and I feel like I’m there all the time. And, finally, although the [Theatre de la] Jeune Lune doesn’t exist anymore, Dominique [Serrand] and Steve [Epp] are still close friends, and I very much hope I will be doing a project with them. It won’t be Jeune Lune anymore, but it will definitely be the aesthetic legacy of Jeune Lune.

MP: The closing of the Jeune Lune was a huge loss for the Minneapolis theater community.

OE:
Absolutely. Jeune Lune was such a unique enterprise. It’s hard to see anybody filling that gap. But just because the company’s gone away doesn’t mean the artists have gone away, and we all should still pay a lot of attention to that and provide trajectories for them going forward.

MP: You have two shows playing in repertory in Central Park right now, “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale” [through Aug. 1; for schedule click here]. Why are you doing those two plays this summer, and why in rep?

OE:
Well, I think all Shakespeare aspires to the condition of rep. That’s how [the plays] were written, that’s how they were meant to be performed, and that’s how they were originally performed. I think, particularly for American actors, we just don’t get enough chances to do rep, to really embrace the power of being in rep. I think it’s great for the actors, I think it’s great for the audience, and it’s something I hope we’ll be doing on a very consistent basis going forward. As for the plays, with “Merchant” it was fairly simple. I wanted to do a play about the stock market, and [“Merchant” is] a play that depends on a certain kind of credit loan default. It centers on issues that are very current in our lives here in the city. As for “The Winter’s Tale,” it’s the most beautiful play about redemption ever written. I just feel like the ultimate message of “The Winter’s Tale” is there is no sin so bad that forgiveness is not possible. And that is a message I could say we need now. But when don’t we need it?

MP: You’re often very successful at conceptualizing your Shakespeare in the Park productions. “Merchant of Venice,” for example, opens on a trading floor in the late 19th century. Do you choose which Shakespeare productions to do with a context in mind, or is that something you decide later with the director? How does that process work?

OE:
The conceptualization is really something that is done with the director. The director takes the lead on that. But when we select the play and match a director with it, we talk [with the director] about why we’re interested in it … to make sure we’re on the same page. But how that’s carried out is very much in the director’s ballpark. I know [“Merchant of Venice” director] Dan [Sullivan] and [“The Winter’s Tale” director] Michael [Greif] pretty well. I’ve talked about a number of different plays with them at different times, and so we sort of settled on these plays by the process of discussion with them as well as by just picking the plays. It’s really more organic than mechanical.

MP: How close are you to realizing your goal of making all productions at the Public free, not just those in the park? It’s such a huge, huge goal.

OE:
It is a huge goal, and it’s meant to be a huge goal. It’s not going to be easy to achieve. But the good part about it is that you’re asking me about it. This idea is now a regular part of the conversation, both inside and outside the theater. And, in a way, that to me was the first step. We just have to actually make it a continuing part of the dialogue, because we’re going to have to rally a lot of support to make it a reality. And the first thing you have to do is make it conceivable. And I’m happy to say that we have made it conceivable.

MP: Hearing you talk about it, it almost seems like it must happen.

OE:
Well, from your lips to God’s ears.

To watch Eustis discuss the 2010/2011 season at the Public Theater, go here or view below.

Dylan Dawson is a playwright, performer and documentary researcher. He currently lives in New York City. This interview has been condensed.