Last week’s announcement that Oskar Eustis will succeed George C. Wolfe as artistic director of the Public Theater gave rise to something seldom seen in our fractious theater community—unanimous goodwill.
Eustis, 46, has been artistic director of Trinity Repertory in Providence for the past 10 years, and before that led the Eureka Theater in San Francisco. What’s unusual about his appointment is that his national reputation stems less from his accomplishments as a director than from his work as a dramaturge—one with an extraordinary track record in new-play development. Though he has a long and impressive résumé of staging both classic and contemporary drama, Eustis has built his career away from the New York spotlight, which explains why he’s best known here as the genius who fostered Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America.
A chorus of praise has risen from playwriting quarters at the news of his appointment. Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre, credits Eustis with “shepherding some of the most important new plays into the national repertoire.” Eustis in fact scored his first success when he commissioned Mann’s Execution of Justice in 1980, and he continues to serve as one of her writing confidants. David Henry Hwang calls Eustis “the best script adviser in the country,” and sends him drafts of his plays for feedback no matter where they’re being produced.
Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, says Eustis not only has “great taste” but possesses “one of the best dramaturgical minds in the country.” Any concerns he has have less to do with Eustis than with the challenge of “keeping the Public strong, vivid, progressive, and as necessary as it wants to be.” Whoever leads this theater, London says, “has to make it his life’s work as opposed to his own directing. Oskar has the integrity and coherence of purpose to make that happen.”
In a phone interview, Eustis avowed that his main task would be to keep the Public functioning as “this umbrella of generosity, allowing artists to flourish and grow.” He readily admits that he wasn’t hired mainly for his directing. “It’s not what I’m primarily interested in, and I don’t intend my directorial style to be the stamp of the theater. I define my mission as providing a broad platform for other people’s work.”
Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a member of the Public’s search committee and board of trustees, said that Eustis offers a different range of skills from Wolfe: “George is a consummate artist. Oskar brings talents as an institutional leader. He will certainly direct from time to time, but I think it will be a whole lot less than what George did.”
Campbell is particularly excited about the joint partnership between NYU and the Public, which has Eustis joining the Tisch faculty. For both parties, the watchword is synergy. “We’ve had a running conversation with George about the possibilities of connecting the two institutions, but we were never able to figure out the details,” she says. “When Oskar indicated that he would welcome such an arrangement, I seized the opportunity. He brings to this his experience of teaching at Brown University while leading Trinity Rep, and so we’re very eager to have the benefit of his expertise.”
Foundry Theatre artistic director Melanie Joseph sees the relationship that Eustis built between Trinity and Brown as evidence of his “talent for community building.” She also says that having led both “an adventurous modest-sized theater and one of the big institutional behemoths has equipped him to run an inclusive operation like the Public, which is made up of smaller visionary artistic endeavors.” She adds with a laugh, “I don’t know if anyone else will care about this, but he’s a red-diaper baby, which will always give him a progressive edge.”
Literary agent Morgan Jenness calls Eustis “a politician in the best sense of the word—someone with an understanding and commitment to the polis.” These qualities should serve him well in trying to galvanize what many fear has become an increasingly moribund theater audience. “We need to reconnect arts organizations to our communities in new ways, to remind them of our importance,” says Jim Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop. “George did a remarkable job of making the Public a beacon for cultural diversity. But we have to begin to address the question of what is the value of live performance in our lives.”
Mark Russell, himself a contender for the job after leaving his longtime post as executive director of P.S.122, doesn’t feel that Eustis’s lack of recent New York experience should hurt him: “He has a broad knowledge of the areas that need to be addressed, from Shakespeare to new playwriting to board development. It’s probably good that they went outside the neighborhood. And he knows the Public as well as anyone.”
Set designer Ming Cho Lee thinks Eustis’s national perspective will be a good thing for the Public. “New York can become so provincial,” he says. “There’s a lot happening beyond Manhattan. Joe Papp wasn’t such a big New York director when he started, but he had a great vision of what the theater should be. And he created something that didn’t yet exist in this town.”