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One On 1 Profile: Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis Takes NYC Institution To The Next Stage

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The Public Theater is a unique New York institution, presenting plays, concerts, and readings representing everything from the avant-garde to Broadway. NY1 interviewed the Public's creative director, Oskar Eustis, last fall as his theater was celebrating a multi--year, multimillion-dollar renovation, and learned that Eustis himself has quite a story. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report.

Oskar Eustis will do almost anything to promote theater, including the time in San Francisco when he got into the boxing ring to raise money for a young artist.

"He had the artistic directors from different theaters fight and I thought it was going to be a joke, and I got into the ring and the guy was really throwing punches," Eustis says. "I actually had a concussion."

Eustis no longer has to put on boxing gloves to raise funds, but he is still fighting the good fight as the artistic director of the Public Theater, a renowned Manhattan institution that has been a part of him since he was 16 years old.

"I ran away from home, came to New York City, walked into the lobby of the Public Theater and like one of the little ducklings who gets imprinted by the first large moving object, the Public became my image of what a theater should be," Eustis says.

Eustis notes the Public was built over 150 years ago as the cornerstone of the New York Public Library, and now the theater is celebrating a multi-year, $40 million renovation. It will spruce up the lobby, remodel Joe's Pub, add a restaurant and in general bringing new life to the old brownstone on Lafayette Street in NoHo.

The building has changed, but the Public's vision, laid out by its founder Joe Papp, has not.

"We do Shakespeare, we do experimental work, we do musical theater, we do new plays, all of that under one umbrella, because what Joe was saying when he founded this place, is this is all of one theatrical community," Eustis says.

As Eustis says, "If the theater is to serve its greatest function, it must be a place where everybody gathers."

Papp died in 1992, but in a sense still remains the Public's creative heart and soul. Eustis says that legacy is not a burden, but a relief, because the mission remains the same.

"I'm Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith for the history of the Mormons. I'm not the guy who founded the religion, I’m the guy who comes afterwards and tries to build it up and turn it into an institution to make sure it's stable for generations to come," Eustis says.

A resident of the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, Eustis lives with his wife Laurie and their two children. Every day, he commutes to work by bike.

At the beginning of rehearsals for a new show, such as when NY1 saw him begin the process for "Sorry" by Richard Nelson, Eustis gathers the cast and crew for a theatrical pep rally.

Not surprisingly, many of the seminal moments of Eustis' life revolve around the theater. It's no coincidence that when the Public held its renovation ceremony, the music was from "Hair."

Eustis says he was a "disaffected" 14-year-old in 1972 when he first saw "Hair" in London. He got on stage at the end to dance with cast and the rest of the audience, and something clicked.

"There's a way to be totally against the war, to be anti-bourgeois, to be embracing a counter-cultural lifestyle and make theater that's actually also a job and you actually have a support," Eustis says. "And it was literally as I was standing on stage, I was thinking, 'Oh, maybe there’s a way I can put this all together.'"

Fast forward 36 years, Eustis had what he calls the happiest moment of his life: a 50th birthday party on stage at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park after a performance of — what else? — "Hair."

"The cast lifted me on their shoulders," Eustis says. "It's hard to imagine that I will ever feel happier than I did. Everything was coming together, our family, the people I love, the audience, the show I love, the music. It was great."

It was quite a scene for a boy who grew up in Minnesota, trying to keep his emotions in check.

"I laughed too loudly, I got too excited and boy, I tell you, I cried way to easily," Eustis says. "So it was for me, when I walked into the theater, it felt like I found a home where I made sense."

In Eustis' own home, there was perhaps more drama than in any of the shows he would one day stage. After his parents divorced, his mother struggled financially, his father battled alcoholism and his stepmother was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic.

"Each of them overcame those difficulties and have had really triumphant last acts," Eustis says. "And to me that feels like the most important legacy I got from my folks, which is when there's conflict, lean into it, because if you actually embrace that conflict and work through it, there is victory on the other side of that."

As a young man, Eustis came to the Public Theater to audition for Papp, but it didn't go well.

"Moments after I stepped out of the room, I remember literally standing in the hallway of the Anspacher Theater, going, 'I'll never do this again. I'm done, this isn't me,'" Eustis says.

But Eustis was hardly done in the theater. He became a director, dramaturg and artistic director.

He was working in San Francisco in 1985 when he came to New York on a low budget, intent on seeing theater every night.

Arriving late one night at the Public, Eustis was fortuitously denied entrance. It was fortuitous because he opted to go see a show by an up-and-coming playwright named Tony Kushner.

"Within 15 minutes of the start of 'A Bright Room Called Day,' I knew I was in the presence of a great writer," Eustis says.

Kushner would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his play "Angels In America," a show that Eustis worked on passionately for years.

Eustis calls Kushner the most important artist in the American theater, and his best friend. But the friendship got off to an inauspicious start, when Eustis invited the playwright out to San Francisco to work on a play.

"In my infinite wisdom, I was sure that a gay New Yorker arriving in San Francisco for the first time would like nothing better than to go to Candlestick Park and see the San Francisco Giants play," Eustis says. "And Tony tells the story in an extremely amusing way. He sat there pretending to be interested for four hours. 'Did they make a point now?'"

Eustis enjoyed successful stints running theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Providence before coming to the Public in 2005.

He occasionally hears the criticism that the Public is not producing enough new works and is concentrating too much on sending shows to Broadway.

"I never do anything in order to move it to Broadway," Eustis says. "Any show that we do here, we're doing because I think doing it here will be fantastic. Most of the shows we do have future life after they're done here, some of them on Broadway, but many of them at regional theaters across the country. And in a way, that impact is even more important."

Eustis seems to be a man perfectly content with his life at home and his life in his second home, the theater.

"Of course on some level, I wish I was the greatest director who'd ever been, you know. I wish I was the star, but not really, because that's not who I actually am," Eustis says. "It's this career has allowed me to become, I think, the best version of myself."

Since NY1 interviewed Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater has announced a new David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical, "Here Lies Love," that will run throughout April and early May.

Then there's the annual Shakespeare In The Park shows. The 51st season of free shows at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park will feature Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and a new musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost."

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