Free Radical

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.

Liev Schreiber as Macbeth, at a preview in Central Park last week.Photo: Michael Daniel/The Public Theater

Eustis isn’t interested in continuing the boom-and-bust cycle, and anyway, he wouldn’t be allowed to. When the board hired Manus, it gave the executive director authority equal to that of the artistic director, in part to impose fiscal discipline. A major shakeup followed her arrival—firings, resignations, a complete turnover in the development office—as did scattered complaints about her brusque style. But she’s got the money flowing again. Some sponsors who had turned away have been wooed back, and individual giving has increased 80 percent. There are now 70 donor events a year, up from 30, with one almost every night in the park. She’s also received promises from the city of $13 million toward a $16.5 million renovation of the building on Lafayette Street. New features include a lobby redesign, a patrons’ lounge, a café, and replacements for the medieval bathrooms.

But with a business executive (who has scant theater background) newly ascendant, and an artistic executive who’s really fond of infrastructure, what happens to the Public’s freewheeling vibe, what Wolfe calls its “wonderful dance” of order and anarchy? Several artists who have worked there worry that he will opt for safe choices, importing a regional-theater mind-set to the Public; as one puts it, “Organizational concerns might start to trump artistic concerns.” In other words, under Eustis, the competent manager and savvy fund-raiser, the place could become prosperous but dull—the antithesis of the Public’s usual profile.

“I firmly believe there’s a way to combine the raffishness with a stable infrastructure,” says Eustis. In the Public’s best days, that was its specialty; Papp drew crowds and kept the energy level high by putting on diversified work—a lot of it. To that end, Eustis wants to boost the production volume. While Macbeth readies for its opening, he has jammed Lafayette Street with David Hare’s extended Iraq-war docudrama Stuff Happens; two new plays incubated under Wolfe, José Rivera’s School of the Americas and Diana Son’s Satellites; and a workshop of King Lear starring Kevin Kline. Eustis also volunteered to host the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, even though Sternberg warned that the staff was stretched too thin to manage it. When he overruled her, she proposed he make T-shirts for the crew that read I’M SORRY ABOUT JUNE, COMRADE over his signature. (Though he today calls himself a “radical Democrat,” Eustis was a red-diaper baby, and he still calls lots of people “comrade”: actors, staff, the receptionist …)

Volume isn’t everything, of course. The work needs to be varied enough that the lobby crowd looks, as Wolfe always says, “like a subway station.” So Eustis is moving in two directions at once. He wants first to reconnect with the history of what is now the longest-running major theater in town. Hare is already back, and John Guare will soon return for the first time since 1977, with a play slated to star Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def. He is even planning to have Akalaitis workshop Bacchae.

Assuming that the brand-name talent will deliver, he still faces a second, and greater, challenge: finding the new writers and actors who will define his Public. Eustis can make plenty of bets, since at the Public, only 35 percent of revenue is earned, the other 65 being contributed—the opposite of most places. Success depends on whether those bets turn out to be any good—if his taste suits the place. Last year, he made a smart call in producing Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise, even if his own direction was so-so. Next season brings new plays by Julia Cho and actor–writer–slam poet Daniel Beaty, among others.

He’s also bringing in his old collaborator Tony Kushner, with whom he’s had a long and sometimes difficult relationship (see “Backstory”). In August, Eustis will bring Kushner’s new translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage to the park. It will be directed, in a small-world sort of way, by Wolfe.

If Stuff Happens is his ideal downtown show, Mother Courage may be the model for the park. It’s inextricably rooted in the world today, which is key to his vision for all Public shows. It also brings a great actress, Meryl Streep, to a stage that Eustis wants to make an essential destination for great actors. (Brian Dennehy turns up next summer; he’s “leaning towards” playing Falstaff.) And it marks Kushner’s Delacorte debut—his official debut, anyway. Three years ago, he rewrote a speech—in Elizabethan verse—that Wolfe and director Mark Wing-Davey dropped into Henry V to ground the play more completely in our Iraq misadventure. Nobody spotted it.

The weather is so beautiful on the night of Macbeth’s final dress rehearsal you almost forget the raccoons and bugs and storms. As 200 or so invited guests take their seats, Eustis has a big hug for Sam Mendes, a “recent friend.” Joe Papp liked to make brave, go-for-broke gambles; on nights like this, you realize how resoundingly his biggest one paid off.

For all his modest stands and impersonal choices, Eustis has been nurturing a big move of his own, one that might out-Papp even Papp. He has spoken in the past of his belief in “radical accessibility.” When I ask him to elaborate, he speaks deliberately. “There should be nobody economically excluded from seeing this work. I don’t know the best way to do it, but we do have a very successful model in the park: We give them all away.”

For decades, steep ticket prices have hampered every attempt to reform the New York theater: high cost creates risk, which limits audiences and excludes the young, which leads to conservative programming, which saps energy and diversity, which sticks you with the overpriced superannuated mess we’re in today. If Eustis could somehow make every ticket free, that particular Gordian knot would be cut. Is that really what he intends?

He won’t say those words, but he does add that people throughout the organization are “discussing how to execute” a plan for dramatically expanded access. Warren Spector, chairman of the board, agrees that ticket availability is a priority, as long as lowering the price doesn’t seem to devalue the work. Manus agrees, but isn’t sold on free tickets: Beyond the financial concern, she says, they would need a strategy to ensure that a broader audience was really being served.

If Eustis even comes close to this ideal, he wouldn’t just be tending Joe Papp’s legacy, he’d be markedly advancing it. In his pursuit of “democratization,” the watchword for all his efforts, he’d prove that the Public still has an essential role to play in New York’s aesthetic, political, and civic life—a radical one.

Two decades ago, on the very first night of his very first show, Tony Kushner heard a stranger join his characters in singing “The Internationale”—one who knew every word. “I thought some ancient lefty had wandered in,” he recalls. It was Oskar Eustis. Eventually, Eustis would commission the play that became Angels in America, helping Kushner shape it and co-directing it in L.A. But just before the play’s Broadway transfer, after one too many fights, the playwright replaced Eustis with George Wolfe. Now all three are working together in the park. “It’s intense,” says Eustis, “but not peculiar.”

Free Radical