PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Oskar Eustis

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Oskar Eustis It's never a quiet time for Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater.
Oskar Eustis
Oskar Eustis

But the last few weeks have been busier than most. The Public's acclaimed revival of Hair — a show that had its original debut at the Public — has been announced for a Broadway arrival sometime in the 2008-09 season. And rehearsals have begun for the long-in-coming New York premiere of Road Show, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's years-old musical about the American Dream as practiced by the quixotic Mizner Brothers. Eustis spoke to Playbill.com about the role history plays in the modern-day Public, and what exactly constitutes a Public Theater production.

Playbill: Were you at all surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reception to the Central Park revival of Hair?
OE: I was not really surprised. Hair is a piece that has been close to me for decades and I have known it was theoretically possible to revive it in a way that would bring out its contemporary resonances and make it feel as fresh as I think we succeeded in making it feel. You can't be sure if you're going to succeed at it. You know it's possible. And I was thrilled when it did speak to the audiences. When something strikes a nerve, it's just great. It's really wonderful.

Playbill.com: From reading the reviews, it was apparent that a lot of critics were surprised by their positive reaction to the show.
OE: Yeah. Honestly, I think a legend about Hair's datedness has sprung up over the years. And to a certain extent I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy because a major revival had not succeeded. There was a sense it could not succeed. What we tried to focus on was, rather than look at the surface of the piece, we tried to focus on the underlying story under the structure. And that structure is really solid. It's really built. There's a lot of thought and care that had gone into the first 30 percent of it, which is the introduction of the characters in an almost vaudeville-like way; and then we begin the story of Claude and the draft and we follow an almost internal journey of Claude and, through him, the tribe trying to resist the war, and failing — not being able to. That basic story felt solid as a rock when we got to it. It has an emotional power that is unexpected when you get there at the end.

Playbill.com: What is the extent of the Public Theater's involvement in Hair's move to Broadway?
OE: It's more serious than it's been in many years. We're one of the two lead producers. We're partnering with Elizabeth McCann. We are complete partners.

Playbill.com: Is it an open run?
OE: We hope so. We don't have a theatre yet. When we get a theatre, we plan to run it as long as there's demand. Playbill.com: Let me ask you about Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Road Show. This musical has had a long journey to New York. How did it end up at the Public?

OE: It's odd. Stephen Sondheim and I had become pretty well acquainted before I came here. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend when I was teaching at Brown, and we hit it off. We talked about Bounce and put together a series of readings. And the more I saw it, the more I became intrigued with it, as well as seeing its flaws. I think through this process, we've helped the piece — which previously showed the influence of a lot of hands pulling it in different directions — come together in a more focused way.

Playbill.com: As a devil's advocate, let me ask: does an artist like Stephen Sondheim need a production at the Public Theater?
OE: Just as bluntly, let me ask back: Who else is going to produce him? I'd like to say two things about that. This show has been around and has failed to come to New York. The producing community has let Sondheim down. I think the greatest composer in American theatre history deserves to be produced in New York. But even Steve was joking about that. He'd look about the theatre and say, "Are you sure I belong here?" Secondly, as we kept working on the show, the great themes of the piece started to feel more and more like Public Theater themes to me. And maybe that's because I fell under the sway of Sondheim and Weidman's work. But, good God, the show is about a real estate bubble that bursts!

Playbill.com: Yes, timing-wise that is a bit of luck, if you can call it that.
OE: There's this line between American genius and American charlatanism — that way that success and phoniness seem inextricably linked in America in a way that isn't like any other culture. It just feels, now, to me, completely like a Public Theater piece. And I might add to that John Doyle's directing it really adds to that, because John's ethos about how John works with text and how he works with actors is so organic and firmly based in the artistic and collaborative tradition. So far, it's going like a dream. Now, there's plenty of time for nightmares to happen. But so far it's going great.

Playbill.com: Recently, you brought in two former Public Theater artistic directors. Joanne Akalaitis will direct The Bacchae in the Park and George C. Wolfe is directing John Guare's A Free Man of Color. Was that just a coincidence or did you make a point of bringing these people back?
OE: I only wish I could bring Joe [Papp] back, too. It was absolutely deliberate. One of the things that makes the Public special is there are more artists of stature who feel like they are part of the Public's history and family than any theatre in America. One of things that I was trying to do is not just nurture new artists, but bring the past artists back, and bring the theatre's history back to the Public, so that all the artists that have called the Public home can continue to call the Public home.

Playbill.com: Was that one of the reasons you hired Jenny Gersten as an associate producer? Not to denigrate her skills and accomplishments, which are considerable, but she does have that history at the Public, in the form of her father, Bernie Gersten, who worked many years with Joe Papp.
OE: (Laughs) As much as I’d like to say that I hired Jenny as a way of bring Bernie back, I have to say that I hired her for her. I liked Jenny the moment I met her and felt she would be perfect for the Public. Now, this is literally true, I took a long walk on the Brooklyn Promenade and searched my soul to make sure that I wasn't simply suffering from Bernie envy and trying to get Jenny's father back, and I concluded that I really just wanted Jenny.

Playbill.com: Early on, you said you wanted to bring more than Shakespeare to the theatre in Central Park, and you've done that with productions like Hair. What other types of show do you plan to bring to the Delacorte?
OE: Well, The Bacchae will continue that tradition next summer. I'd like to get to a point where the Greeks are a regular thing. Along with Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks are the other great communal theatre tradition.