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Oskar Eustis: Theatre for the People, by the People and of the People

SOUTHERN THEATRE   |   VOLUME LVIII NUMBER 3   |   SUMMER 2017

by Paul B. Crook

“The power of theatre is unleashed when people are not only watching it, but participating in it.” – Oskar Eustis

Photo by Mark Mahan

Anyone who has turned on a TV, listened to a radio or opened a web browser in the past two years has heard about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s theatrical sensation Hamilton. And most people, certainly those who work in the world of theatre, know that the show began its New York productions at The Public Theater, under the artistic direction of Oskar Eustis. But Eustis, the Saturday keynote speaker and SETC Distinguished Career Award recipient at the 2017 SETC Convention, is so much more than an administrator and a producer. He is a visionary. Addressing a packed room at the Lexington (KY) Hilton, Eustis talked about the Mobile Unit and Public Works, two of the inspiring new programs he has implemented at The Public, as well as highlighting the direction in which he would like to see U.S. not-for-profit theatre companies move. Of course, he talked about the phenomenon of Hamilton also, along with why he sees such value for society in the production of theatre. As Eustis pointed out in his talk, “[w]hen rehearsal works, you become a better person than you are outside of the rehearsal room.”

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‘The training ground for citizenship’

Eustis began his talk by telling the audience he had just come from Dallas, where he was with linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who studies and works with community arts organizations and youth in under-resourced communities. While studying at risk kids who are involved in after-school activities, Heath discovered that kids who participated in theatre improved their social behavior as well as their school test scores. Although Heath was not necessarily a “theatre person” at the time, these studies showed her – Eustis noted – that “theatre is the training ground for citizenship.” That’s a concept that Eustis embraces wholeheartedly, noting that empathy, collaboration, problem-solving and language skills are all needed to succeed in theatre – and to be a positive and contributing citizen in society. Speaking about those students and all of those who work in theatre, Eustis noted that “we, in relationship to others, are becoming better versions of ourselves.”

Eustis’ discussion of Heath’s discoveries served as a jumping-off point for a quick trip through the historical timeline for the development of theatre and democracy. Eustis highlighted parallels between the growth of theatre and the growth of democracy, tying the two together in a way that was both fascinating and inspiring. For Eustis, theatre is intrinsically tied to community, society and politics. When asked after his talk if all theatre is political, he replied, “Yes, because it all has to do with how we live together.” He went on to hold Shakespeare and his plays up as an example, noting that all relationships in Shakespeare’s plays affect more than the two people involved. In that regard, there is, in his work, no such thing as a “private” relationship.

“The values of a community,” Eustis said, “are a part of your personal relationships.”

The interconnectedness of theatre and community is reflected in all of Eustis’ work. As a Shakespearean scholar and director, Eustis finds the sociopolitical and communal aspects of the Bard’s work to be defining. “Shakespeare created what it meant to be English,” Eustis told his SETC audience. Because Shakespeare’s audience was the broadest and most diverse the world had seen since the Greeks, his plays had to appeal to a diverse group.

“[Shakespeare is] great because he had to write to please all of those different people,” Eustis said.

‘When people are deprived of [Shakespeare’s] stories, they need them’

The broad appeal of Shakespeare is what led Eustis and The Public to develop the Mobile Unit, a nod to legendary theatrical producer Joe Papp’s “Mobile Theater,” a 1957 touring company that evolved into The Public. In 2010, Eustis and director Barry Edelstein (then serving as the director of the Shakespeare Initiative at The Public) created the Mobile Unit as a touring program that presents free performances of Shakespeare at prisons, homeless shelters, halfway houses, battered women’s centers and community centers. The Mobile Unit operates on the principle that the “need for what Shakespeare has to offer is as strong as the need for food, shelter and sex,” Eustis said, and is the only setting where the “diversity of the audience matches the diversity of New York City.”

The connections are so strong, and the experiences so powerful, he said, that the artists at The Public all want to work on these tours. As an example of just one of the powerful experiences, Eustis related an anecdote from the Mobile Unit’s performance of Measure for Measure at a women’s prison in New York. He set the scene for the audience by describing Act II, Scene iv of the play, in which Isabella has gone to plead with Angelo, the interim Duke, for the life of her brother, who has been sentenced to die for the crime of sleeping with his betrothed. Though initially unmoved by her arguments, Angelo eventually tells Isabella that, if she will sleep with him, he will free Claudio, her brother.

Distressed and angered by Angelo’s hypocrisy, Isabella closes the scene with a soliloquy. Eustis described Nicole Lewis, playing the role of Isabella, stepping downstage to begin the speech, saying “To whom should I complain?” Before she could continue, Eustis said, a woman in the audience shouted, “The police!” Though taken aback, Eustis relayed, Lewis simply looked at the woman who had shouted and continued with the next lines Shakespeare wrote: “Did I tell this, who would believe me?” The woman in the audience, defeated, answered back, “No one, girl.” After taking a moment to indulge the joy of his inner Shakespeare geek, Eustis noted the visceral nature of people’s connection to Shakespeare’s plays.

“When people are deprived of those stories, they need them,” Eustis said. “And it’s a fantastic thing to go out and offer them up.”

Photo by Joan Marcus | The Public Theater’s free Public Works productions bring together people from across all five New York City boroughs, amateurs and professionals alike, to present theatre. Above is the company of Twelfth Night, presented in September 2014 and conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, and directed by Kwame Kwei Armah.

Of course, the Mobile Unit is not the only way Shakespeare’s work is connected with The Public. Most famously, the company offers free Shakespeare performances in Central Park every year. With performances at the Delacorte Theater since 1962, the Shakespeare in the Park series continues a tradition started by Papp, The Public’s famous founder, in 1956. Over the years, countless people have had the opportunity to see some of the theatrical world’s greatest artists present the Bard’s work at the Delacorte. Actors such as James Earl Jones, Olympia Dukakis, George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, Audra McDonald and Al Pacino have been directed by Joe Papp, Des McAnuff, Adrian Hall, Kathleen Marshall, George C. Wolfe and, of course, Eustis himself.

Stepping into the director’s chair this summer for the first time since his 2008 production of Hamlet, Eustis chose to bring back Julius Caesar. The first of Joe Papp’s free Central Park productions in 1956, Caesar has been produced at the Delacorte only one other time in the history of the venue (in 2000). In a Feb. 9 New York Times article that announced his direction of Caesar, Eustis noted that “Shakespeare’s political masterpiece has never felt more contemporary.” In an interview after his talk, Eustis noted that “producing provides maximum impact, but [I lose] something when not in the rehearsal room” as a director. Directing for Shakespeare in the Park plays right into Eustis’ passion for ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to engage with theatre.

“Access to what we do is part of the problem …” he said. “The theatre is only healthy when it expands its reach.”

Like the Mobile Unit’s productions, the summer Shakespeare shows at the Delacorte are free, providing a way for people who might otherwise be priced out of the performances to see quality, professional theatre.

The Public Theater’s Public Works program presents large-scale, participatory performance events that deliberately blur the line between professional and amateur. It “reaches back before World War I … before the bloody 20th century” to create, as its website says, theatre “that is not only for the people, but by and of the people as well.”

‘Theatre belongs to everyone’

Making theatre available for people to see, however, isn’t enough. Eustis’ vision of theatre as a participatory event, and one that is inextricably linked to democracy, means that the power of theatre is truly at its strongest when people are performing theatre. This idea led to the development five years ago of the Public Works program. Public Works, as Eustis outlined and as the theatre’s website states, “is a major initiative of The Public Theater that seeks to engage the people of New York by making them creators, and not just spectators.” Formed in 2012, with its first performance in 2013, Public Works “challenges the idea that we are separated by professions,” Eustis said.

Public Works draws its inspiration from the pageant movement of the early 20th century, which saw entire communities come together, as amateur actors put on performances that celebrated a town’s history. Under Lear deBessonet’s direction, artists at The Public spent a full year studying the pageant movement, to understand the power of the form. From that study came Public Works, which presents large-scale, participatory performance events that deliberately blur the line between professional and amateur. It “reaches back before World War I … before the bloody 20th century” to create, as its website says, theatre “that is not only for the people, but by and of the people as well.”

To explain the Public Works initiative, Eustis played a video for the audience providing a behind-the-scenes look at the program’s first project, a 2013 musical adaptation of The Tempest (View the video here). Living up to the motto that deBessonet espouses in the video, that the “theatre belongs to everyone; culture belongs to everyone,” and drawing from each of the five boroughs of New York, the performance involved 250 community members, five professional actors and five professional musicians. The performers had limited rehearsals for a year before coming together for four days of performances. In the video, Eustis says, “We believe that theatre has a specific role to play – it always has. It’s a democratizing impulse, an empowering impulse, a participatory impulse.”

That empowerment has not come easily, Eustis said. Despite a year of study and preparation, unexpected challenges still arose as the first Public Works production moved toward its opening. For example: When the diverse cast moved to the Delacorte for final rehearsals, The Public’s leaders discovered most of the community performers did not have subway passes, which meant, of course, that the price of subway passes had to be added into the budget.

Photo by Joan Marcus | Brandon Victor Dixon (front) portrays Odysseus in a scene from The Public Theater’s free Public Works production of The Odyssey, conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet with book, music and lyrics by Todd Almond. The Public’s third Public Works presentation, this show brought together professional and amateur actors, as well as dance and singing groups for performances at the Delacorte Theater September 4-7, 2015.

The Public partnered with five community organizations for its first Public Works presentation: Dreamyard, an arts education organization in the Bronx; Domestic Workers United, which advocates for Caribbean, Latina and African domestic employees across New York; The Children’s Aid Society, which assists children living in poverty in neighborhoods throughout the city; the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that works to help former prisoners re-enter society and to provide alternatives to incarceration; and the Brownsville Recreation Center, which provides artistic and athletic programs for youth and senior citizens. Partners work to help identify participants for Public Works, and then provide those participants with opportunities to take classes and workshops in music, acting and dance, as well as to attend play readings and join in creating a singular piece of theatre, which culminates in public performances at the Delacorte.

Public Works: Starting ‘a national movement’

Public Works is being funded in large part, and perhaps somewhat ironically, by Hamilton revenues. “Hamilton is a game-changer,” Eustis said, and it’s partly because “hip-hop can deliver information so much quicker” than standard dialogue or musical theatre songs. Hamilton (which premiered at The Public and is produced by The Public, Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs and Jill Furman on Broadway) has enjoyed wild success, but its popularity is a bit of a double-edged sword. In fact, the high prices of Hamilton and other successful Broadway shows have influenced many nonprofit theatres, as they have increasingly begun to follow the commercial model. Public Works is a shining example of Eustis’ belief that nonprofit theatres should not try to follow the commercial model at all. Hamilton is helping accomplish that, because Eustis has taken a different approach than Joe Papp did decades ago with A Chorus Line. While Papp poured all the profits from the highly successful A Chorus Line back into the Public’s budget, Eustis said that, “with Hamilton, we are only putting $250,000 into the [Public’s] operating budget, with the rest going into reserves.” Included in that operating budget is Public Works, which means that the high-priced, market-driven hit supports this wonderfully inclusive initiative. Meanwhile, Eustis’ long-term investment strategy should allow the initiative to grow and thrive for many years.

Public Works is helping to “turn theatre back into what it’s always been: a set of relationships among people,” Eustis said. To accomplish that and to capitalize on the talents that all humans have, this initiative seeks to “spread the glory,” Eustis says in the Public Works video, and to communicate the message that “the power of theatre is unleashed when people are not only watching it, but participating in it.”

Spreading the glory of participatory theatre and recapturing the civic pride of the pageant movement is a national goal for Eustis, not just a local one. Immediately prior to the SETC Convention in Lexington, he had been in Dallas, where Eustis and The Public helped the Dallas Theater Center and Southern Methodist University recreate the Public Works initiative locally with a production of The Tempest. That replication of the Public Works program was only the first of what Eustis hopes will be a long line of them. The next iteration will be Public Works Seattle at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The staff at The Public is creating a “playbook” of sorts that will include all of the lessons learned through the Public Works development process. Eustis hopes to have it ready by December of this year. It will be available to theatres and organizations that would like to implement the program in their own communities. His vision is that theatres that would like to recreate the initiative in their cities would be able to contact The Public and use the playbook to learn the ins and outs of the program.

“We’re starting a process of trying to make this a national movement and seeing if somehow … we can have an effect on the division in our society,” Eustis said.

No matter if Public Works is happening in New York, Dallas, Seattle or any other town in the future, the key to its effectiveness, Eustis said, is the development of community partnerships.

The call for theatre partners to join the movement was the closing point for Eustis in his SETC Convention speech. As he looked out across the audience filled with students, teachers and professionals, he noted the common vision shared by all of them.

“You’re doing the work,” he said. “You’re out there working, caring about the things we all care about, often times with populations who do not get the chance to do the things we get to do. I’m honored to be one of you.”

‘We believe that theatre has a specific role to play – it always has. It’s a democratizing impulse, an empowering impulse, a participatory impulse.

AUTHOR PROFILE

Paul B. Crook is a professor of acting and directing at Louisiana Tech University and author of the recently published book, The Art and Practice of Directing for Theatre (Routledge, 2016). He is a frequent contributor to Southern Theatre.

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