Angeling in America

Special Features   Angeling in America
 
Oskar Eustis, The Public Theater's new artistic director, has built his estimable career shepherding innovative work to the stage
Oskar Eustis
Oskar Eustis

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Oskar Eustis could tell you a thing or two about Private Fears in Public Places. An angel of long standing (in both the real and the rialto sense of the word), he recently made his ascent to the artistic top of The Public, arguably the country's most prestigious play plant, where he will spread his wings and make theatre happen either directly as a director or indirectly as dramaturg/midwife/nursemaid/ principal producer of The Public goods.

He is 47, three years younger than the institute he now heads — but he has already pretty much spent The Ages of Man in theatre, starting out as an angry young actor, railing and flailing at the Establishment in fringe groups like Mabou Mines and Performing Garage, before going west and growing into the Establishment in that City of Misfits-by-the-Bay.

"I never felt normal until I moved to San Francisco," he has said. "It made me feel integrated into a community instead of always having to rebel against it. I didn't have to be just part of the counterculture. I could be part of the culture." It was in San Francisco that he finally found his particular theatrical niche at the Eureka Theatre Company, where he served as resident director and dramaturg from 1981 to 1986 and artistic director until 1989, when he moved to Los Angeles to become associate artistic director at the Mark Taper Forum and an associate professor of theatre at UCLA. His past 11 years have been spent as artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. At every stop, he has added and developed special skills that he can use in his work at The Public, not the least of which is the rarefied art of glad-handing and fund-raising. (Trinity Rep was solidly in the black during his last eight years there.)

This gift alone gets him an encouraging leg up over his three Public predecessors. "Both Joe [Papp] and George [C. Wolfe] — and, even in her brief tenure, JoAnne [Akalaitis] — did a spectacular job of supporting artists and creating the mission and profile of this place," he readily admits, "but it has also been operated in a boom-or-bust mentality all through its existence. It has not been a stable organization. It has always been an organization that took chances, but the negative part of that is that it gets very unstable economically, and, when you're unstable economically, you can't take chances. Suddenly you're constrained. You're trapped, and you're losing the ability to carry out your mission. What I hope I can do within the next decade or so is lay down the tracks — the artistic architecture of the place — in a way that universities have been able to do. What the great universities have been able to do is to create an alternative support system to the market — to create enough of an economically secure support base that they can fulfill their mission, regardless of what the market is doing. We're living in a time where it is getting harder and harder to protect yourself from the marketplace — to not just do what is commercial, to not just do what is popular — and, if you're going to be able to resist that in the long run, you've got to be able to build up an endowment to a point where you can firmly support your mission." One way or another, all roads seem to have led Eustis to The Public. Like that time in the mid-eighties when, on a play reconnaissance for Eureka, he arrived at The Public too late for an 8 o'clock curtain. His friend suggested they catch an 8:30 play being workshopped in Chelsea by a young playwright in the NYU directing program. "This was A Bright Room Called Day" — was it ever! — "and, within 15 minutes, I knew I was in the presence of a genius. It was not just that Tony Kushner was an extraordinary writer. It was that he was an extraordinary writer concerned about all the things I was concerned about. Most of us in theatre feel alone in a lot of ways a lot of the time. Then we come into the presence of certain kinds of artists and we suddenly know, 'I'm not alone. I'm not the only one who's worried about this.' That's exactly what happened with Bright Room."

He flew Kushner out to San Francisco, and they worked almost two years on Bright Room before premiering it in the fall of '87. Then, Eustis set Kushner up for a commissioning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. "Tony had the title — Angels in America — and knew it would be his coming-out play as a gay playwright. Because we were in San Francisco and this was the mid-eighties, it was absolutely clear that we had to deal with the AIDS catastrophe. He knew he wanted the Mormons in it, and he wanted Roy Cohn to be a character." Somehow, they got all that in a paragraph and got the grant.

"It developed from there. Basically, over the next six years, we worked on it in — as Tony puts it — 'a continuous conversation' through, really, what feels like countless workshops and thousands and thousands of hours of just talking and reading until finally in the fall of '92 we presented it at the Taper." By then, there were two Angels in America — one subtitled Millennium Approaches, the other subtitled Perestroika — and Eustis helmed both. When they came to Broadway as separate Tony-winning entities in 1993 and 1994, they were directed by the man Eustis has succeeded at The Public, George C. Wolfe.

Eustis's most fateful career move also occurred at The Public, when he auditioned for Henry V before the great Joseph Papp himself. In lieu of Shakespeare, Eustis tried out with a solo performance piece he was working on. "I did the entire thing. It was about 15 minutes long. I couldn't believe he let me do the whole thing. At the time, I thought it was amazing. In retrospect, it's absolutely astonishing. At the end of it, he said, 'What was that?' I said, 'It's called Sleeping With Women.' He said, 'I suggest you keep doing that.' And I walked out and never auditioned again. That was it. I stopped being an actor."

Joseph Papp started many an actor and artist on theatrical journeys. One can't help but imagine him looking down from on high now and smiling at the angel he created at that audition.

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