Going Public

A new vision for America's flagship theater pays homage to the past

 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.

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