Oskar Eustis: ‘Hamilton reminds people that the US can be a force for good’
The man at the helm of New York’s Public Theater is one of the most admired artistic directors in the US, with several game-changing hits under his belt. He talks to Mark Shenton about what it takes to deliver a diverse programme of work that reflects the essence of the theatre’s identity and his role in creating the irresistible force that is Hamilton
The New York Public Theater is arguably the most influential theatre in the US today. Housed in what was the Astor Library on the edge of the East Village in Manhattan, it is all at once grand, imposing and instantly welcoming. It is home to a diverse programme of work that stretches from new plays to Shakespeare, new musicals and cabaret to work by experimental companies. That diversity is the essence of the theatre’s identity, it’s artistic director Oskar Eustis says.
Eustis has run the theatre for 12 years and revels in the range of work it puts on. It is no less, he says, than a reflection of what America should be.
He hails the experimental work of PS122, the Kitchen and St Ann’s Warehouse, the Shakespeare plays staged at Theatre for a New Audience and new work at Playwrights Horizons. But if the Public dropped part of what it does, “everybody retreats to their corners and goes into their cultural niches,” he says.
“The whole joy of the Public is that we don’t respect any of those niches and keep crossing over and cross-fertilising,” he adds, in the softly spoken tones he uses throughout the interview. “For me, that’s the aesthetic equivalent – or analogue version – of what American democracy is supposed to be about. It’s not supposed to respect boundaries, it’s supposed to cross them.”
It has a range of spaces to cross those boundaries in, playing nightly to audiences in five separate theatre auditoriums plus a cabaret club space called Joe’s Pub, named after the theatre’s founder Joseph Papp. Each summer, it also runs a season of free summer performances in Central Park at the purpose-built outdoor Delacorte Theater. Then there are the hits that have moved beyond Lafayette Street.
Shows that have begun their lives at the Public include the current smash hit Hamilton that is playing on Broadway, in Chicago and on tour in the US, with a fourth iteration opening next month at the Victoria Palace Theatre in the West End. The Public will also send the UK the Tony award-winning musical Fun Home, which transfers to the Young Vic next year.
Broadway is currently home to a transfer of Latin History for Morons, John Leguizamo’s latest one-man show that premiered at the Public last summer. In recent years, the Public has also seen Broadway transfers of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.
Broadway is always an aspiration for American regional and institutional theatres. It is an incredibly valuable revenue stream, and is where the big awards are won: the Public has received 59 Tonys and seen its plays receive six Pulitzers. But the Great White Way is not where Eustis’ primary ambitions for the theatre lie: “Not remotely. It may be the reason I get to stay here for a long time, but it’s not what I’m here to do.”
The night before we meet, there was a gala benefit concert reuniting the cast of the Public’s 2007 revival of Hair. When Papp brought in the show exactly 50 years earlier, while the Public was still under construction, it was its first non-Shakespeare production and really put the theatre on the map.
“[Last night] was an incredibly emotional event for me as Hair was the first big Broadway hit I had,” Eustis says. “And it was the first show I came to the theatre determined to do when I took over. We had brought this incredible cast together and 18 of them didn’t have Equity cards. They were all kids, and we didn’t fire a single person from the first concert we did in Central Park in the summer of 2007 to the full run there a year later, then Broadway.”
Musical theatre has long played a large role in the Public’s profile. It was here that one of Broadway’s greatest tributes to itself – A Chorus Line – was launched in 1975, before transferring to Broadway, where it established the record for the longest run of a musical in history (until it was toppled by Cats). And now Hamilton is similarly making history – and remaking the modern musical with it – after beginning its life at the Public in 2015.
But this time there’s a key difference with how Eustis is treating the revenue boost the theatre receives. “What Joe Papp did was take every penny from A Chorus Line and put it into the operating budget. When A Chorus Line closed, it left an enormous hole. He’d abolished the development [fundraising] department at the theatre, as he thought it was immoral to ask people for money when the theatre was making so much of it. I don’t share that belief,” Eustis says.
“We are taking a very small percentage of the earnings from Hamilton – $250,000 a year – into the operating budget at the moment; everything else we are holding in cash reserves and endowments for at least a couple of years, then we may come up with a very smart plan for spending it.”
A hit of the magnitude of Hamilton comes once in a generation. “No one could have predicted this,” he admits. “It is unprecedented.”
Q&A: Oskar Eustis
What was your first theatre/non-theatre job? I was paid to be member of a children’s theatre company in 1971 when I was 13. I was paid $75 a week to perform in The Ugly Duckling, touring to elementary schools in Minnesota. That was a fortune to me then, and I’m absolutely convinced one of the reasons I decided on a career in theatre was for the money.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? When I was trying to decide whether to move to LA or not, a friend told me to ask myself where I could be of most use and to think of it as service. I wished I’d been told that sooner.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I have to say Brecht was and remains a touchstone, who I go to for quotes. I’ve directed The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and The Measures Taken, and produced Caucasian Chalk Circle and Galileo.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Recognise that whether people want you or not is completely out of your control, and all you can do is present who you are.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Probably a lawyer, but I’d have been unhappy.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I fight my superstitions because I don’t believe in them. One of my rituals is that when I direct a show, as soon as the curtain goes down I go outside and walk around the block (or the park if it’s at the Delacorte) and take a few minutes entirely by myself, to let go of the thing I’ve just made. Then I come back to the party and give it back to the world.
It had been in development since 2009, when Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the first song and performed it at the Obama White House. Eustis saw it on YouTube and started work to bring it to the Public. “It took me three years, and then three more years before it opened,” he says. “By bringing it here and working on it here, we were trying to make it the best possible version of itself. And the real brilliance of Hamilton is that it reflects who Lin-Manuel Miranda is.”
Eustis praises how Miranda took “everything he loves and refused to recognise distinctions between them”, adding: “He loves Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Beatles, Leonard Bernstein and hip hop and Chance the Rapper – and it all goes in. As an artist, his work is embodying the unity that we dream of for the country.”
It is the sort of show that an artistic director always dreams of landing: one that comes to define a cultural moment; a true game changer. “Hamilton is the first musical since Hair where the soundtrack to a show has become the soundtrack to the nation,” he says. “People listen to it whether they’ve seen it or not. That ability to take pop music at its hottest, and bring it to the theatre and the theatre to it, is just one of the achievements of Hamilton.”
He calls the show an “irresistible force” and during previews amused himself by seeing if he could over-praise it to audiences heading into the auditorium. “I’d say it was the best American musical ever written, that Lin-Manuel’s achievement was comparable to Shakespeare.” He chuckles, adding: “People would come out and say it was better than I said.”
Hamilton is not the only musical theatre game changer that the Public has staged under Eustis’ auspices. Two years earlier he put on Here Lies Love, an immersive musical with music by Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, which turned the theatre into a giant dance club as it told the story of the rise of former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos. It subsequently transferred to London to reopen the refurbished Dorfman Theatre at the National.
Then there was Fun Home, an improbable commercial hit that transferred to Broadway and is now on a US national tour. “Are you suggesting that an adaptation of a graphic novel about a lesbian and her suicidal father isn’t commercial?”, he jokes.
“I don’t really want to compare them but in a way I’m prouder of Fun Home than Hamilton. As Lin-Manuel himself says, what happened with Hamilton was that he was a mosquito who tapped into the vein on an elephant. He hit something and it roared out of him. But Fun Home was sheer craft. Seventeen different opening numbers were written, and when we first looked at it the central character was not even in the story. It took all that time to get it all lined up, and, like a miracle, we discovered there was no edge to the swimming pool.”
The Public also scored a Broadway transfer with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, another history-based musical about America’s seventh president that portrayed him as an emo rock star. Eustis mentions a recent memorial for its composer Michael Friedman, who died in September of complications from HIV/Aids, after being undiagnosed for most of his illness. “There are so many aspects of Michael’s death that are upsetting, but probably the harshest is that he was only 41 and just starting to get it together. There were big masterpieces coming in the next decade.”
We talk about other leading figures of the theatre whose lives were cruelly cut short by HIV/Aids, including Michael Bennett (the original director and co-choreographer of A Chorus Line) and Charles Ludlam. “When Charlie died this entire genre of theatre died,” Eustis says. “He was to the theatre of the ridiculous what Bob Marley was to reggae. He wrote my favourite theatre manifesto ever, which opened with the statement that you are a living mockery of your own ideals, and if you are not, you have set your ideals too low.”
So what are Eustis’ own ideals? “I was raised in a communist family of three generations. Another member of my artistic team grew up in an evangelical church in Indiana. When we met, we realised we’d both been raised in relatively dogmatic cults. We had dropped the dogmatic apparatus but retained some of the fundamental values. “She talks about the divine spark in every human soul. For me, that was like electricity – she spoke of approaching it from social justice and empowerment and the dignity of the individual.”
Between them, the pair created the Public Works programme of participatory theatre, which Eustis says is the most important extension of the Public’s mission. It sets classical plays to music and brings professional actors together with hundreds of amateur performers. “It is trying to destabilise the idea of what the artist is – it’s a component of what it is to be human, and so everyone is an artist,” he says. “Some people get to spend a lot more time doing it, but it is a continuum, not a binary. Public Works embodies that and is the most democratic of ideas.”
The Public is now partnering with the National Theatre to bring this model to the UK. “Rufus [Norris] and I met and immediately hit it off. We are both interested in public engagement, and our staff members started connecting around Public Works. For the last two years, five people from the National have come over for several weeks, and we’ve finally sealed this pact. And what I love is that it is entirely intellectual, spiritual and artistic – we are not sharing money, just ideas.”
The National’s version of the programme will launch with a new community-led production of Pericles, featuring a small cast of professional actors joined by a large number of non-professional actors cast from the NT’s community partner, the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. It will be performed on the Olivier stage in August 2018.
Oskar Eustis’ top tips for an aspiring artistic director
1. The fundamental criteria for an artistic director is your taste, so you better expand, challenge and refine it every day. And if you pick something for any other reason than that you love it, you are sunk, so you have to learn to love more.
2. Pass as much credit as you can around and share it. It will inspire loyalty, and long-term relationships are key to this.
3. Theatre is not a puritanical art form, so don’t feed your inner puritan.
Eustis sees another affinity with the National. “Our mandate is also broad and we’re supposed to be making work that influences the field all over the country and represents its populations. Public Works has spread to affiliates in Dallas, Detroit and Seattle; we have a bigger base and more money than other non-profits, so it is our job to be as good an example of what we can be for how it’s done.”
He came to the Public after a long career in regional theatre; from San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre – where he both developed and directed the original production of Angels in America – and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, to Providence, Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Theatre. He strongly promotes the Public partnering with other regional theatres to produce new work.
“The beautiful thing for me about my history is that I now have very close colleagues all over the country,” he says. “Most of the plays that come through here we first take out of town to Berkeley, LA or Dallas, and work on them out of town before we bring them in. That’s what commercial theatre used to do before, but no one does that now as they can’t afford it. We can do it in a not-for-profit way, and it has made for some very strong alliances.”
The heart of Eustis’ own philosophy also sits at the heart of the Public’s, which is about democratising art. “The idea that the culture is a collective creation, it belongs to everybody and everybody owns a piece of it, they get to contribute to the story of it and see themselves in the story,” he says.
Profile: The Public Theater, New York
Artistic director: Oskar Eustis
Executive director: Patrick Willingham
No. of performances: 1,663 (five theatres downtown at 425 Lafayette Street, plus Joe’s Pub and the Delacorte Theater in Central Park)
Audience figures: 97,884 people attended Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater
Artists employed: 1,505
Tickets sold: 249,773
People per year: 300,000
No. of employees: 180 full-time; 1,000 seasonal staff
Funding levels: 65% contributed, 35% earned revenue
Key contacts: Mandy Hackett, associate artistic director, Maria Manuela Goyanes, director of producing and artistic planning, Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths, casting directors, Jeremy Adams, general manager, Tom McCann, senior director of marketing, Candi Adams, director of communications, Ruth Sternberg, production executive
That, he feels, is a big reason behind the success of Hamilton: “I know the reason why Americans ravenously consume it is that it lets us feel patriotic, which some of us haven’t felt for most of our lives. It reminds us what the better angels of America are. Those of us who like to believe romantically that there is something special about American democracy hope that at least one component of it has this penumbra of expanding inclusion.
“We are equal before the eyes of the law, which means a continual expansion of enfranchisement. If we can make that America, not the America of Trump, walls and borders, we could be a force for good in the world again.”
And it is his job to make sure that the theatre survives to fulfil its role in that landscape. “I was brought here to solidify the theatre and make sure that not just the institution, but the mission of the Public becomes a permanent part of the New York landscape. We have famously been a fabulous invalid from the time we were born. No one has ever questioned that the Public produces fantastic and exciting art, but it booms and it busts and people have come to accept that it is permanently unstable. My real goal has been trying to change that.”
He has given the theatre stability not just with the bona fide commercial hit of Hamilton, but also with the web of partner venues the Public collaborates with around the US and abroad.
London is a key part of that, with the new partnership with the National and the transfers of Hamilton and Fun Home. “But it’s not so much about London per se as about creating a network and a spread of the values of the theatre, and connecting out with other theatre artists that share those values,” he says, before adding: “It starts to smell like a movement.”
CV: Oskar Eustis
Born: 1958, Rochester Minnesota
Training: No formal training (he enrolled with NYU but never completed his studies)
Landmark productions: Hair (Tony award-winning revival), Hamilton, Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Sweat (all at the Public)
Awards: Three Tony awards: best revival for Hair, and best musical for Fun Home and Hamilton, Three honorary doctorates (Brown University, Middlebury College and Rhode Island College). He is also being inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame on November 13
Hamilton opens at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London on December 21, with previews from December 6