Going Public


At the start of his first season as artistic director of the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis reflects back on the institution’s unique 50 year history and offers some thoughts on how to ensure the theater stays culturally relevant and vital.

Fifty years ago Joe Papp had an idea: free Shakespeare in the park. Unpack that simple thought, and you find principles that are worth examining. It was free: The theater was for everybody, regardless of class or economic status, so the work of art resisted being turned into a commodity, resisted the tyranny of the marketplace. It was Shakespeare, which both reaffirmed the greatness of the Western canon’s most celebrated writer and simultaneously insisted that that writer, and that canon, belonged to all Americans. And it was in the Park, which celebrated the theater as a socially engaged event that epitomized the life of the city.

Thirty-eight years ago, in 1967, the Public Theater opened in the old Astor Place Library on Lafayette Street, and Joe added a new plank to the Shakespeare Festival’s mission: the creation of new work that reflected the diversity and complexity of our historical moment. We would not only appropriate the existing canon, we would add to it. The brilliance of this idea—to hold up Shakespeare next to contemporary writers, to use him as a model of how ambitious a playwright could be, how epic a theater should aspire to be—was borne out in the remarkable resurgence of American playwriting that came out of the Public: From Hair to Sticks and Bones to For Colored Girls to The Normal Heart, plays too numerous to mention engaged in fierce debate about how we live now.

JoAnne Akalaitis first came to the Public as an actress with Mabou Mines, the experimental downtown theater Joe offered a home to in the 1970s. Her development as one of America’s greatest directors exemplified another vital function of the Public: to be the mothership for the downtown theater scene, to erect a large tent that could encompass companies and artists of enormous aesthetic diversity, as well as cultural and racial variety. Without that large tent, it’s hard to imagine JoAnne becoming the director she became, intensely politicized, deeply engaged with the classics, as radical in her aesthetic as she is in her politics.

George C. Wolfe, that absolutely uncontainable force of theatrical energy, did something here that no one else has ever managed: He so thoroughly reworked the Public that it became the only mainstream theater in the United States that could no longer be called a white theater. As George says, it’s not diversity, it’s reality. His particular brilliance as a crosser of disciplines and boundaries informed the life of the building. He was writer and director and producer; he crossed lines between music and theater, between the commercial and the nonprofit, between the radical and the popular, that no one else has ever been as successful at crossing.

In 1975 I ran away from home to live in the Performing Garage, and a year later ended up in a loft on Great Jones Street, where the Public, my neighborhood playhouse, formed my image of what a theater should be: messy, thrilling, inclusive, radical, alive, more concerned with making something meaningful than making something pretty. And now, 30 years later, 50 years after Joe trucked actors to New York’s parks, I’m artistic director of the Public Theater.

I’m in charge, not of changing our mission, but of figuring out how these great values and traditions can be embodied in 21st-century New York. This is a very different cultural moment, with dark and threatening political trends, and our methods of executing our mission have to respond to our new realities. As Brecht said, don’t start from the good old days, but the bad new ones. I’m still grappling with how to get my mind around this astonishing theater, and this city, but here’s a sample of what I’m thinking about these days.

Radical Accessibility. Free Shakespeare in the Park has produced one of the greatest audiences you’ll find anywhere in the world. Sit in the Delacorte on a summer night and the vibrancy is palpable; there’s no question an audience so enthusiastic and democratic is created in large part by the free thing. How do we extend that vision to all our work? We live in a time of capitalist triumphalism, where any alternative to the commodity-fetishizing marketplace seems unthinkable, even laughable. The great nonprofit institutions must resist this. The theater is an event, not an object. It must not only remain accessible to the broad class of patrons who are vitally interested in it, but become accessible to the millions who don’t know the theater has anything to offer them. We need to defend the non-commercial nature of our theater with muscle and vigor. Charles Ludlum said that the theater is a humble material enterprise that seeks to produce riches of the spirit, not the other way around, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. This means we need to look hard at our earned income and figure out how to throw our doors open wider than they have ever been before. It means we need to remount the old Mobile Shakespeare and bring theater to people for whom the Delacorte seems a distant, inaccessible domain despite the free tickets. It means we need to think every day about how we make our work matter to the broadest audience there is.

One Big Tent. The Public has always been at its best when it is bringing the most diverse groups of artists together to rub shoulders, Shakespeareans and experimentalists and new-play folks and foreign companies, and now, thanks to the brilliant success of Joe’s Pub, an unending stream of some of the most exciting musicians in the world. We need to take advantage of our real estate: Five theaters and the Pub under one roof should allow for a constant, rich variety of work, brought together to deliberately create exciting and surprising combinations. Rob Marx said there was one thing I should remember when I took over this building: It was built for high volume and fast turnover. We need to build an organization that has the vitality and quantity of work necessary for the kind of calamitous syntheses that create great and unexpected art. For the last three years, we’ve provided a home for Labyrinth, a wonderful theater company whose ideals and work I completely support. How can we do more of this?

A Home for Writers. Slowly and passively, we in the American theater are allowing the most talented generation of writers we have ever had come to believe that they can only make a living in TV and film, and that the theater will more and more become a frustrating and expensive hobby. The long-term effects of this will be catastrophic; not only will writers lose faith that they can make a living in the theater, but they will despair of making a life in the theater. We need to provide the kind of financial and artistic resources writers need to make sure that any writer whose talent we believe in and who believes in the values of the Public can find a home here. Shouldn’t we have endowed chairs for playwrights? Great research universities figured this out long ago: They give chairs to scholars and researchers as a way of telling them that simply doing their work is of great social value. The salary and benefits are meant to free them up to do that work, along with some participation in the life of the university. Shouldn’t we do the same for playwrights at theaters? Provide salaries and benefits to our greatest writers—not enough to get rich, certainly, but enough so that they won’t have to work in the electronic media simply to pay their rent. Beneath that, of course, we need a whole series of commissioning and development programs to give opportunities and access to writers of all levels of experience.

Development of Artists. This has always been an oral profession, training handed down by the laying on of hands, one generation of artists working alongside and teaching the next generation. A great theater like the Public has to take responsibility for the development of new generations of artists who are interested in the values and mission of the Public. Accessible, American Shakespeare performed at the highest level of excellence; radically engaged new plays; work by artists who reflect the tremendous diversity of the American landscape: None of these values will survive unless we nurture the leaders and artists who are interested in them. We have a long-standing, informal relationship with NYU, and I have a faculty appointment there: None of us knows exactly how, but there is a feeling within the Public and NYU that there is some way of combining forces that can make each organization stronger and better able to fulfill its vision. The continuity of our theatrical tradition can only be preserved by careful nurturing of the next generation of artists.

This list, as general and ill formed as it is, is what I am thinking about now.