In 1966, Joseph Papp strode into an impressive, triple-arched building on Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s East Village that had fallen into disuse. It had been built more than a century before to house the Astor Library and had more recently served as the headquarters of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Papp didn’t like what he saw. “Everything was dark and dreary,” he told an interviewer. “With all the damp and disarray it was very, very sad. It looked like there had been a pogrom in the place.”
Still, Papp gazed beyond the clutter to the columns, the moldings, the domed ceilings. He sensed that this place could become a theatre—the downtown hub of his own Public Theater. That organization, perhaps the closest thing to a national theatre America has known, opened its doors, on Lafayette Street, in 1967.
The building Papp turned into a theatre has likely never looked better than on a recent October morning when artists, donors and local politicos gathered to celebrate its first-ever full-fledged renovation. In place of a forbidding series of steps and a cramped atrium, a generous entryway now sweeps attendees from the street and into the lobby, which has nearly doubled its floor space. Long-bricked-over arches stand open and gleaming; an LED chandelier, dubbed the Shakespeare Machine, blazes with bits of text from the Bard’s 37 plays. Just out of sight, beyond a glass-walled box office, new and much-needed restrooms beckon.
In the midst of the celebration stood Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, face aglow, signature mane characteristically disheveled. (No wonder he commissioned a Hair revival.) As the playwright Diana Son says, “There isn’t a fuller head of hair in all of American theatre.” There may not be many fuller hearts, either. Eustis has a reputation as a man unafraid to weep, and he looked as though he might as he addressed the crowd. “Come in,” he said, sweeping his arms out, then in. “Enter, gather here. You know what? You don’t even have to buy a ticket. Just come here, gather, make it your space.”
Since he became artistic director of the Public in 2005, administering both the Lafayette Street space and Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, Eustis has had the distinct challenge—one he seems largely to have met—of making the Public his space while simultaneously preserving its legacy. For instance, he has recently relaunched the Mobile Shakespeare Unit, an innovation of Papp’s that disappeared in 1977, the better to connect with audiences—in prisons, in shelters—you won’t see lining up for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park.
Using what playwright Suzan-Lori Parks describes as “a rare combination of balls and grace,” Eustis has overseen new initiatives for musical theatre, devised theatre and emerging and established writers. He has also made his political commitment (which Son describes as “arty socialist” and playwright David Henry Hwang calls “radically democratic”) felt in works ranging from Richard Nelson’s Apple Family plays to New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s The Human Scale, about the crisis in Gaza, to a recent Joe’s Pub event in which Public Theater artists celebrated political viewpoints from Lapham’s Quarterly in story and song.
Eustis says that he sees his primary duties as making these various initiatives permanent and reaching as many spectators as possible, particularly underserved communities, “People need theatre,” he said during a recent appearance on the Studio 360 radio show. “The way we need air, the way we need water. It’s stories that make us a collective. And the need for that is not going to go away.”
But the theatre’s renovation, the fruits of a $40-million capital campaign (of which the City of New York contributed $28.5 million), will surely stand as one of the highlights of his tenure. In addition to the pleasing cosmetic improvements, courtesy of the New York–based Ennead Architects, the four-year process increased accessibility, reconfigured electrical systems, and made the Public into the kind of space at which you might want to linger long after the play or cabaret has finished. It has a new lobby bar and a new restaurant called the Library (a nod to its Astor origins), though the latter has higher price points than a purely public-minded venture might entail.
Managing various vocations—fundraising, renovating, developing, programming, etc.—can’t always have been easy, and Eustis admits that he has had to reduce the frequency of his directing, which he says he takes joy in. Yet he has continued his work as a dramaturg, giving personal attention to each show the Public develops and produces. Diane Paulus, who directed the popular Hair revival that moved from Central Park to Broadway, says that Eustis “can get to the core of what a play is saying, what the story is.” Hwang, who has worked with Eustis since 1993, speaks of “his unique ability to analyze and help me understand my own script. In my opinion, he is the finest dramaturg in America.”
As Tony Taccone, artistic director of California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre—who has worked with Eustis since the late 1970s—puts it, “He never loses sight of the fact that he’s trying to empower people to actually become inspired to do the work. That’s really a particular skill set—that’s why people love working with him.”
That love was almost too apparent on the Tuesday morning we met on Lafayette Street for this interview. Eustis had to bat away phone calls, memos and various urgent meetings (scheduled and otherwise) in order to speak to American Theatre about his first seven years in the job. In the midst of his tiny office crammed with books, scripts, Berliner Ensemble posters and a bicycle, Eustis curled his tweed-clad frame into a leather armchair in a manner most yogis would envy and spoke candidly about the Public’s mission, his politics, his priorities, and his fundraising acumen.
ALEXIS SOLOSKI: I don’t know if there is another theatrical institution in America as strongly associated with its founder as the Public is with Joe Papp. You had two artistic directors intervening—JoAnne Akalaitis and George C. Wolfe—but when you were thinking about taking the job, how much anxiety of influence did you feel?
OSKAR EUSTIS: Almost none, which is not at all to say I didn’t have anxiety—I had tremendous amounts of anxiety!—but it was actually an enormous comfort to me to be taking over an institution whose mission is so clear. I started coming here when I was 16 years old, and this place, the particular mix of things that make up the Public Theater, became to me sort of the Platonic ideal of what a theatre should be. I actually experience the legacy of this place as an enormous boon and as an enormous enabler, because I never have to think, “What are we doing here?”—all I have to think about is how are we going to execute it. It feels like a luxury.
How would you articulate that mission?
The Public is here to make theatre that matters. It’s a theatre that’s all about democracy. It started with the idea that the best theatre—Shakespeare done in the most robust and excellent American style—should be viewed by the greatest mass of people that could possibly view it. The particular brilliance of Joe was, in 1967 when he opened this building, that he added the idea that those who make culture should be as diverse as America itself. He didn’t just turn the auditorium over to the people—he turned the stage over to the people.
Joe really had a very strong visceral sense that theatre had to be about something—not just moving furniture around, as [avant-gardist] Jack Smith said. The theatre has something to offer, when you’re talking about the state of our nation, that can’t be offered in any other way, and the theatre should always be aspiring to speak to those issues. Although we’ve had many families onstage at the Public, you don’t think of the Public as a place where purely domestic dramas happen. It’s also modeled from Shakespeare. Shakespeare understood that even the most personal relationships are placed in a social context, and that’s what reveals the truth about them. That’s what we try to do with the plays we do here.
Since you’ve assumed command of the Public, what programming choices have you made to manifest this mission?
What I set out to do is to try to build up the institutional muscle of the place, to strengthen the structure of the institution so that the mission can last for a very long time. So, for instance, we’ve always developed writers here. What I tried to do was just create a set of programs that institutionalizes that—from the Emerging Writers Group, to the Public Lab, to the Master Writer’s Chair. Those are all things that have been very successful, and that I hope, before I leave here, will be rooted in the institution in a way that they’ll last forever.
It’s remarkable the number of new initiatives you’ve started in the past seven years. You have the ones you just mentioned, and also the Musical Theatre Initiative, the Shakespeare Initiative, the Devised Theatre Initiative, Public Forums, the reinstitution of the Mobile Unit, as well bringing in the Under the Radar performance festival.
It’s pretty great. But in a way, none of those things are actually brand-new activities that the Public never did before. Maybe it’s silly to say, but I will not really feel like I’ve been successful here until the Public has decisively moved away from the boom-or-bust cycles that have always marked the Public’s history. As soon as we hit an economic crisis, suddenly all the programs go away for a few years—and sometimes they go away for a few years and never come back. The Mobile disappeared in 1977—nobody can even really articulate why it disappeared. And that’s what I hope all of this institutionalization really changes.
For a producing institution, the Public has an incredible amount of resources devoted to development. I think that you’ve placed even more emphasis on the development side.
When I came here, I said that one of my goals was to make sure that any writer whose talent we believed in, and who shared the vision of the Public Theater, could call the Public home. We have ways to connect with them and work with them. I’m proud of that.
How do you go about discovering artists who you think are necessary and vital, and then how do you build and maintain relationships with them?
Well, it’s hard. There’s no rocket science to it. We have a literary department that reads hundreds and hundreds of plays, and I’m as visible as I know how to be without sacrificing my family altogether. Even the creation of the Emerging Writers Group was sort of via negative, because we said, “Look, most playwrights can get to us, we can read their work, we can decide whether we’re interested. Who can’t get to us?” Writers who don’t have an agent, writers who have never had a New York production, writers who have not been to one of the top-flight MFA programs. So we formed the Emerging Writers Group.
And, almost exceeding beyond my wildest dreams, we have gotten people who are just crazily, wildly diverse—one of my favorite things, we have a new member of our program who just got out of prison after 18 years. We started connecting with him through our prison work—he’s a really talented writer, and he’s speaking from a life experience that doesn’t get represented on our stage. That’s what we need. That’s the life-blood of the theatre.
I found when I first got here that if I didn’t really actively work at it, I would be surrounded by hyper-articulate, over-educated, lefty, male, mostly straight playwrights. And you know what? It just sort of felt comfortable to me. But if I don’t really put some other markers down, the theatre’s gonna look like me, and that’s not good. The theatre’s gotta look like the city.
You’ve talked about giving underserved artists a place at the table, but let’s talk about giving underserved populations a place in the seats. Tell me about the decision to restart the Mobile Shakespeare Unit.
Resetting the Mobile was, in a way, going back to the beginning. The Delacorte, which is the home of free Shakespeare in the Park, has been one of the great success stories in the history of American theatre, and I’m incredibly proud of what we do there. But the reality is that because it’s been so successful, we now have a theatre that has eliminated the economic barrier to attendance, but raised cultural barriers. The theatre that was founded to provide access to everybody is now the hardest to get tickets to in the United States. And it’s because who the hell can stay in line overnight to see a Shakespeare play? So the re-founding of the Mobile was about realizing that Shakespeare in the Park no longer reaches the people it was originally intended to. We have to go back out to them.
We went to prisons, halfway houses, battered women’s shelters. The prime criterion was saying, “How can we reach those members of society who are the most neglected, the most despised, who are least able to avail themselves of the rewards of our culture?” I will be very surprised if we don’t end up with a full season of Mobile work within the next two or three years.
Tell me about Public Works, a new initiative.
Public Works is really about trying to reach people for whom theatre can’t be something they buy—it can’t be a commodity. The program involves five partner organizations and a series of interactive experiments. We started from the premise that what we really want to do is not just perform plays for people, but figure out ways that theatre can really matter in people’s lives. If you look at our most experimental artists, that’s what they’re doing, too. That’s what Gob Squad is doing. That’s what Nature Theater of Oklahoma is doing. They’re actually saying that this old model of “we sit in the dark and watch you perform” is not where the theatre of the future is going to be. What’s really exciting to me about Public Works is that it feels like it’s not a social-service project—it’s actually an artistic project to see if we can figure out the myriad of ways that the theatre can actually elevate the life of people: participating in it, viewing it, making it, performing it.
That sounds very grassroots, very seat of your pants, very notional—and then we have to contrast that to the latest initiative, which is the very material and lavish renovation of this building.
Actually to me [they are] very complementary. What that renovation is doing is making the Public, as a building, a much more desirable and accessible destination. I could wager you dollars to donuts that people are happier coming to the Public than they were before. However, this is not the building where we will pioneer radical audience initiatives—our spaces are too small, the masses of people that we’re trying to reach, we wouldn’t be able to fit them in here. That’s why we have to go out onto the road to reach those people. This place is always going to be primarily a place where artists get to come and mingle and do their work, and the most adventurous audiences get to come and see that great work. That’s what this building is for.
Was it ever hard for you to devote that much money to a capital project? Forty million dollars—a little more—that’s a lot of money.
It is a lot of money, but a big chunk of it is the city’s money—the city owns this building, and they’re putting money into it. And I know how much this building needed it—the HVAC system, the electrical system—and I don’t feel like this is a decadent or overly luxurious renovation. At the end of the day, it’s beautiful, but it’s relatively utilitarian in terms of what it’s asking people to enjoy.
So, for a man who is forthright about his leftist politics, who knows “The Internationale” by heart, you’ve ended up in a job where you spend a lot of time raising money. How did you reconcile yourself to that?
I may have wanted to be the most acclaimed individual directing artist in the history of the American theatre, but that wasn’t actually what I was. I was somebody who could run an institution successfully and raise money, but who, nonetheless, had a real set of values and vision about what that institution should be. And it’s what I’ve tried to do. Asking for money is not that hard. I’m not getting it for myself. I’m getting it for the theatre. I wish our government supported theatre more generously, I wish it wasn’t as hard to raise money as it is. But as Marx said, “Men make history, but they do not make it in the circumstances they choose.” I happen to have become an adult in an age of capitalist hegemony. I don’t get to decide to be in a different kind of system.
Don’t you ever get pangs, though? I think the Public is probably our closest equivalent to London’s National Theatre, which, though it receives less government money than it once did, is still enormously state-funded.
Not only do I get a pang, I get bitter. I get bitter when those Brits come over here from the RSC and the National and raise enormous amounts of philanthropic money from American donors. I just hope that American donors see fit to support their native theatres.
Do you envision the Public as a kind of national theatre? Would you want that designation?
Not the designation. I think in the United States of America it’s important that we don’t have a single national theatre—or, rather, our national theatre exists, it’s the nonprofit theatre system that’s spread across the country. The Public does have a unique role to play as an outspokenly nonprofit theatre—our economic model has always depended on philanthropy, because we give away all our tickets to the Delacorte, and we have tiny theatres down here. We can’t earn our way out of trouble unless we start charging for the Delacorte, and I’ll shoot myself first.
There has been grumbling over the years about how many extraordinary spaces (six in the Downtown space alone) you have and how infrequently they are all filled. Given your resources and given your ability to fundraise, why aren’t you programming more, or making those spaces more accessible to other groups?
Nobody has ever grumbled louder about this than me. Money is the only reason. Now, I’m successful at fundraising, but I’m not as successful as I’d like to be. We are probably a few million dollars short of what we should have in our annual budget. [Yet] I will never put anything in any of those spaces that I don’t completely support artistically. They are not available for rent to anybody. But maximizing the use of the spaces is incredibly important, my top priority. I think, I hope, we’ll succeed more at it.
Speaking of money, I had a look at the menu for your new restaurant, the Library. I thought, okay, I can probably afford a bag of popcorn, but not the $17 burger or the glasses of wine that start at $13.
Look. It’s not a cheap place. But that’s not the major focus of what we were trying to do. We were trying to create a really wonderful, beautiful destination place to come to that stays affordable. If you look at the prices compared to restaurants that are similarly aesthetically pitched, it’s very cheap. How that’s all going to work out? I don’t know.
Now, there’s been considerable praise for your tenure as artistic director and for your work as a dramaturg. However, your efforts as a director have had a far more mixed reception. Will you continue to direct?
It’s a tough one for me. In New England, I was an extremely successful director; in California, I was a very successful director; here in New York, it’s been more mixed, as you say. I think to a great extent that’s because I haven’t fully figured out how to combine the functions of running the Public with that of being a director. And occasionally it’s just because people don’t like what I do.
I’m directing less. I hope directing never ceases to be part of my life. But I also have to recognize it’s not what my mission is, it’s not what I’m here to do.
So, you’ve had seven years as artistic director. Let’s talk about your mission for the next seven years.
Listen, the thing that matters to me most now when I look at this next cycle is, on the one hand, trying to stabilize and make sustainable the artistic gains that we have made in terms of the programming structures. If I can make sure that those things are funded fully enough and dependably enough so they can last forever, I’ll be very happy. And then, in terms of new programming, there’s the audience: trying to make the Mobile fully, muscularly perform up to five shows a year on tour; trying to develop Public Works to change the relationship of ordinary people to a major cultural institution; winterizing the Delacorte, so every October we can put a tent up there and be offering free theatre to the people of New York year-round. Can you imagine how beautiful it would be if in December and January, people could trudge through the snow in Central Park and see extraordinary work there? And take the damn tent down in the spring and do what we’ve always done! It would be a fantastic gift, because it would be expanding what we do, who we reach. That feels to me like it’s really the major focus—stabilizing the institution and expanding the audience that we reach over the next…however long that I may keep this job.
Critic and arts reporter Alexis Soloski writes frequently for this magazine.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!