Theater

The Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis on Why Shakespeare Still Matters

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Since becoming the artistic director of the Public Theater in 2005, Oskar Eustis has cultivated an astounding number of theatrical successes, from the Tony-winning Fun Home to that blockbuster Founding Father phenomenon, Hamilton. Recently, Eustis’s focus has been geared toward commemorating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and the program he’s devised — which includes an all-female staging of The Taming of the Shrew — makes for nothing less than one of the Public’s most provocative Shakespeare in the Park seasons yet. Here, Oskar talks with the Voice about why Shakespeare still matters; the ways Shrew speaks to transgender issues; and how theater, when done Eustis’s way, can make the world a more civilized, equitable place.

Why should we care about Shakespeare in 2016?

In terms of the depth and complexity of his characterizations, his placement of individuals in society, and the beauty of his language, he’s never been rivaled. Of course, to some extent, his achievements are a result of his moment in history. All classes — aristocrats, illiterate groundlings, Oxford graduates, the queen — gathered simultaneously to watch his secular plays. His audiences were the most democratic in the Western world, and he wrote plays that reflected that audience back at them. In doing so, he created a democratic resonance in the work itself: When people gain familiarity with Shakespeare, they then feel like they belong to society in a way that is crucial to their sense of citizenship.

One of the plays you plan to stage this summer is The Taming of the Shrew. What is there to gain by staging one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays?

I have never directed or produced Shrew in my forty-plus years working in the theater, because I’ve never been able to get my mind around how to do it in a way that I would be able to stand on. Fortunately, Phyllida Lloyd came into my life. She proposed the idea of an all-female Shrew, and it became clear that, in Phyllida’s hands, this play [would] not be a celebration of misogyny and wife-beating but an examination of those things. When you have an entire female cast doing this play — including women playing men — you’re creating this perception that gender roles are not biologically determined but actual roles that people play. This destabilizing of the idea of gender is not only beautiful — it fits so much into what’s happening now in the transgender movement. That’s very exciting, and I think it’s making Shrew producible in a way that it hasn’t been in years.

Your ideas about what theater can do remind me of Joseph Papp, the Public’s founder, who aimed to create a democratic theater. How does your vision match up with his?

My job has never been to change the mission of the Public. What I do is figure out how to execute its mission in 2016 so that it has maximum impact on the culture. With Shakespeare in the Park, we have a success story. But that success causes problems. Now that we’ve removed economic barriers to the theater by offering free tickets, people have to wait in line for over six hours — sometimes overnight — to get tickets. So a program that was meant to provide access to everybody is actually preventing some people from attending.

What are your plans for getting around those barriers?

If we’re going to reach all the people we want to reach, we have to go to them. One way to do that is through the revival of the Public’s Mobile Unit [which recently mounted a tour of Romeo and Juliet]. It tours to parks, prisons, halfway houses, homeless shelters, and community centers in all five boroughs. The audience we reach this way is an exact match of the demographics of New York City; it’s full of people of all races and economic levels.

Shakespeare in the Park programs are now nationwide. If the people who run them were to look at the Public as a model, what would you hope they see?

The core idea I hope we can model is that the theater should not be considered a luxury good — even though, of course, we were responsible for Hamilton. What we want is for the theater to be seen as a right to citizens the way the public library system is a right. At one time, it was a radical idea that you should have all the great books of the world housed in a building, with people able to walk in and take them out for a week. But eventually, the idea of the free availability of books became an important building block of civilization. Ideally, that’s where we’ll end up with the theater. But it’s a struggle; we’re living in a time when the market seems to determine the value of everything. But it’s a fight that’s worth it.

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