When the history of late-20th- and early-21st-century American theater is written, Oskar Eustis will loom large—and not just because he is built like a lumberjack. The bushy-faced and voluble dramaturg and director has been present at the creation of some of the greatest staged works of the past few decades.
Eustis has run the Public Theater since 2005, but his influence began long before then and isn’t confined to the multivenue space on Lafayette Street. Take two milestones: Angels in America and Hamilton. One’s an epic masterwork by Tony Kushner about AIDS, Mormons, and Republicans in the 1980s that made the personal political and the political cosmic. The other is a universally acclaimed and successful musical that melds hip hop and Colonial American history. Both are innately theatrical and intensely political—just like Eustis. He commissioned Kushner to write Angels (which he also developed), and he invited Lin-Manuel Miranda to build and premiere Hamilton at the Public in 2015.
What Should We Do?! spoke with the extremely busy Eustis about his first visit to the Public, the legacy of Hamilton, and how theater has the special ability to speak truth to power.
What Should We Do?!: It’s the 50th anniversary of the Public Theater at Astor Place. Tell us about your first time seeing a show there.
Oskar Eustis: I guess it would have been the summer of 1975. A Chorus Line was running, but I didn’t see it and I didn’t care about it, because I was a Mabou Mines groupie and Joe [Papp, founder of the Public] had them in residence there. I was 16 and I’m almost certain I saw David Warrilow’s one-man show based on a Beckett piece, The Lost Ones. It was in the old prop shop in an environmental setting that can only seat 30 audience members. By visiting Mabou Mines, I began to soak up the ethos of the building. I started to see other shows. Then I went to see Shakespeare in the Park, which I’d never been to, and gradually, I became a full convert.
WSWD: In the past decade, you’ve made the Public a crossroads, where downtown meets uptown and experimental meets mainstream. Was that always your plan?
Eustis: The plan is what Joe intended the theater to be. And I completely absorbed Joe’s vision for the Public when I was a kid. It became my DNA imprint of what a great theater should be. It was so completely clear to me why experimental theater and new plays and musicals and Shakespeare all belonged together.
WSWD: You have Elevator Repair Service doing Shakespeare this fall. That’s a first for ERS, which has explored classic literature but never the Bard. How’d it come about?
Eustis: After years of a very successful association, I said to John [Collins, ERS artistic director], “When are you going to do Shakespeare? You’re at the Public Theater now. Time to do some Shakespeare.” And he said, “Really?” So their Measure for Measure directly derived from the fact that we don’t want there to be boundaries between the two.
WSWD: Well, the Wooster Group did Hamlet in 2007. Why not ERS?
Eustis: Exactly. When we did the Wooster’s Hamlet—which I just adored—I had a bit of contention with Liz [LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group], because Liz said to me at one point, “This is so hard! Every night, there are people walking out.” And I said, “Sure. But every night, there are also people with no idea they were interested in your work who are falling in love with it.” We could have run it for another six months. It was tremendously popular. But what I could feel was, Liz didn’t like being in a place counting audience members who didn’t like the work. My offer to them was come to a place where everybody doesn’t like your work. That’s good for all of us.
WSWD: To bring up a show people are not leaving, but are fighting to get into: Hamilton. Are you being pitched a lot of Hamilton knockoffs?
Eustis: Actually, funny enough, not that many. I really hope the long-term impact of Hamilton is not so much subject matter. It’s in the fact that there are kids growing up right now who feel the drive to be artists, and they’re falling in love with Hamilton. I think we’re going to get a generation of theater- makers that is more diverse than any generation before it, because all of those kids who love rap and hip hop now think the theater is exciting.
WSWD: In terms of nonmusical plays, your upcoming season is very diverse with works by Lynn Nottage, Julia Cho, Bruce Norris, Richard Nelson, and Luis Alfaro. Can you talk about what’s going on, broadly speaking, in American playwriting now?
Eustis: What I feel excited about—Hamilton is part of this trend, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is definitely part of it—is writers feel less afraid of tackling big subject matter. There’s less interest in a boutique-theater kind of writing, writing that is not meant to reach a mass audience, that’s meant for only a 200-seat theater, or a discrete, self-selected group. I don’t think there is as much of that as there was 20 years ago. I feel like playwrights are willing to grab the populist mission and speak to everybody. When the theater is at its best, it knocks down barriers and speaks to everybody at once. Which is what Hamilton has done so astonishingly, and its slightly neglected older sibling, Fun Home.
WSWD: They’re such different musicals. Fun Home is so intimate, domestic, and specific, yet it really found an audience.
Eustis: Who would have thought a musical about suicidal lesbians would still be running?! The tour’s still on! We never dreamed that we’d be able to make this show so universal, and I’m incredibly proud of that. Of course, once a show like that reaches somebody, they’ll never think about lesbians the same way again, because now they’ve seen lesbians speak for them, who also claim to be everyman. You know what I mean? They’re both totally lesbian characters and they’re speaking for everybody at the same time. That’s revolutionary, and that’s what Angels in America did 20 years ago.
WSWD: You never shy away from programming political work. Is there something about theater that is uniquely effective in representing and criticizing power?
Eustis: I think that every aspect of what the theater does radiates democracy: From the basic idea that theater holds as its philosophical proposition—that the truth is to be discovered in the conflict between opposites, it’s not the possession of any one person. The very notion of dialogue, of dramatic encounter, means that we think that truth is discovered through debate, not through fundamentalism or literalism of any kind. But also, the theater strives to turn the audience into a collective being. That means trying to make the audience understand what they have in common with one another, to show that the beggar can look at a king. It’s a civic religion.
WSWD: If we planned your perfect day in the city, what would that include?
Eustis: It would include riding the Staten Island Ferry. Biking over the Brooklyn Bridge, which I do with great regularity. Being late at night in Central Park. I work there, so I get to stay there after the park closes, and biking through the park at 2 in the morning is one of the most peaceful and beautiful things I can do. It would include Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is just a miracle of urban planning. I’m so lucky that this happened during the years I’ve been living in Brooklyn. I am there two or three times a week running, biking, walking, and reading.
Oskar Eustis’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Favorite New York City–themed movie?
Gangs of New York.
Historical spot or site or monument?
This will be obvious to you, but Bethesda Fountain [in Central Park, prominently featured in Angels in America].
Salon for your prodigious hair and beard?
I go to a place called Blue & Black on Court Street. I go there about once a year and get shorn.
Oskar Eustis is expecting to see you at the Public sometime soon; we’ll make your arrangements.