It began in the spring with the raccoons. In March, staffers of the Public Theater unlocked the control booth of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, as they have every year for nearly half a century, and evicted the critters that had nested there for the winter. Fourteen hectic weeks of building and rehabilitating later, Macbeth is about to open. Summer for the New Yorkiest theater in New York has arrived.
There were only four or five raccoons this spring, which makes it a better year than most. And there are other reasons for fresh enthusiasm as well. After a year in which the Public’s new artistic director, Oskar Eustis, inherited some shows from his predecessor, George C. Wolfe, this summer’s lineup is Eustis’s alone. Plus the institution’s fiscal health is less perilous than it has been in a while. Five years ago, the Public faced one of the gravest crises in its crisis-riddled history. A pair of commercial wipeouts—On the Town and The Wild Party—plus the strain of 9/11 led to deficits, layoffs, pay cuts, and a reduced production slate. Fran Reiter began and ended a brief tenure as executive director that staffers regarded as disastrous; two board members resigned. Kenneth Lerer, the board chairman at the time, and his wife loaned the theater money to meet its payroll—twice. He says he feared for its survival.
Since arriving in 2002, executive director Mara Manus has led an effort to balance the books, allowing the organization to advance with confidence. But where should it go? With its reach, history, and unique mix of uptown glamour and downtown ideals, the Public has long occupied a pivotal place in New York culture, but New York is not what it was when Joseph Papp, the Public’s founder, outdueled Robert Moses to bring Shakespeare to the park. At a complicated time, the place has a uniquely complicated leader. Eustis is bold and cautious, radical and judicious. As his first full summer season prepared to open, he offered a highly detailed look at his plans and how he intends to realize them.
When he enters a room, it’s easy to see why so many people call Oskar Eustis, with affection, Clintonian. On a recent Sunday morning, he dropped by the last run-through of Macbeth before the show moved to the park. He placed a hand on this actor’s shoulder, that one’s elbow. For the show’s star, Liev Schreiber, he had a big bear hug. Tall and bearded, Eustis looks a little like a bear himself.
Eustis likes to say he is the first person to run this theater who considers it his profession to run theaters, and a look at his previous gig offers some clues to how he does it. At Trinity Rep in Providence, he presided over a remarkable financial recovery, winning over civic leaders and major funders to eliminate a $3 million accumulated deficit. The seasons weren’t especially cutting-edge—an annual production of A Christmas Carol was de rigueur—but some shows were modestly inventive. He produced My Fair Lady, but in a stripped-down, two-piano staging. He put on the obligatory Shakespeare histories, but as a massive multipart cycle, “The Henriad.” Eustis’s personal taste is more adventurous than these choices, but they suited the audience, which doubled while he was there.
It’s telling that, when asked what made him the proudest, he names not an artistic triumph but an M.F.A. program that links Trinity Rep to Brown University. When pressed for ideas for the Public, he prominently mentions establishing closer ties with NYU and starting endowed chairs for playwrights in-house. These are not the priorities of a flashy impresario; they are long-term ideological, infrastructural commitments. Eustis considers himself, above all, an institution-builder. “That means translating dramaturgical skills to the institutional level, making somebody else’s vision come to life,” he says. “They feel like the same thing to me.” He responds deeply to other people’s work. During much of the Macbeth rehearsal, Eustis strokes his beard, occasionally scribbling notes on a legal pad. When Macbeth’s henchmen kill Macduff’s wife and young son, he audibly sniffles back tears.
The next morning, the stage crew at the Delacorte is watching heavy clouds roll over Central Park, again. Already this week a sudden downpour has washed a coat of paint off the half-built set, and with the actors soon to arrive, time is short. Seventy people are now working in shifts from 8 A.M. to 4 A.M. “We give everybody lots of Gatorade, sunscreen, and bug spray,” notes Ruth Sternberg, the Public’s director of production.
The torrents, the time pressure, the marauding fauna: It has always been this way for the Public, where ambitions constitutionally exceed means. The inexhaustible Papp believed that money followed art, and when he needed funds, he charmed rich patrons or badgered city fathers to keep the doors open. Then he hit a gusher: While other New York nonprofits were building their infrastructure slowly, the Public opened A Chorus Line, which poured some $40 million into the place after it transferred to Broadway in 1975. When the show closed in 1990, just months before Papp’s death, his successors had to get by without the resource that had kept the Public going for a generation. The avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis lasted only a year and a half; though Wolfe banked a lot of money on transfers like Bring In ’Da Noise, Bring In ’Da Funk, the 2001 crisis wiped out all those gains. Manus arrived facing a half-million-dollar annual deficit.