Oskar Eustis (Ep. 2)
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 12, 2020

Charles Melcher speaks with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, who helped bring Angels in America and Hamilton to the stage.

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Charlie Melcher: I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling, and I'd like to welcome you back to the FoST podcast. In this, our second episode, I was delighted to sit down with Oskar Eustis. Oskar is one of the most influential voices in American theater. As the Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York City, he's helped to bring to the stage some of the most celebrated and pioneering shows of our time, from Angels in America to Fun Home to Hamilton the Musical.

In his view, theater's not only a form of artistic expression and entertainment, but a fundamental tool for human connection and social justice. For Oskar, theater plays an essential role in a functioning democracy. His belief is that art can unite people, create empathy, and bridge divides, and as such serves as a beacon of hope that great storytelling can lead us to a brighter and more equitable future.

I'm joined today by an icon of modern theater, Oskar Eustis, the Director of the Public Theater here in New York. You've been involved in the creation of some of the most important theater for the last 20 years, whether that was Angels in America, Fun Home, and, of course, Hamilton. We are very honored to have you participate in this podcast and to be coming to the Future of StoryTelling, so thank you.

Oskar Eustis: I'm very honored to be here. Thank you. I feel less iconic already.

Charlie Melcher: So, let me start by asking you a question about your job. You're the Artistic Director of the Public Theater. What does that mean to you? What does that job entail?

Oskar Eustis: Well, this is an artistic institution, right? So that the core, the mission that we have, is an artistic mission. That mission, in a very broad sense, combines aesthetics, of course, with social justice. It's my belief, and I believe it's the Public Theater's belief, it's the founding belief of this place, that art and social justice are part of the same thing. That you can't talk about theater and social justice separately. You need to think of them as one thing. 

So, my job is to implement the mission of this theater in the programming that we do, to pick the plays that I think exemplify what we mean by a theater of social justice, to choose the artists who are going to put on those plays that I think are of the quality and passion and heart and spirit that can do that, and to create the programs that will support the mission in the broadest possible sense. That's my job.

Charlie Melcher: That's a wonderful job.

Oskar Eustis: It's a great job.

Charlie Melcher: And you do it incredibly well.

Oskar Eustis: Thank you.

Charlie Melcher: So, let me ask you a question about theater. I've heard you say that it has an essential role in a democracy.

Oskar Eustis: Yes.

Charlie Melcher: Why do you feel that way?

Oskar Eustis: The art of the theater is the art of how people change. That's what we're talking about when we're talking about drama. Drama is the art that not just talks about, but actually embodies how people change. That's what a drama is, change. What are the tools by which people change? They change in the theater, in drama, by conflict, by different points of view arguing with each other, producing a new synthesis, a third point of view. That's what dramatic change is in the theater and, again, it's what democracy relies on if it's going to work.

And finally, of course, the simplest thing that we ask for from an audience in the theater is that they care about the characters on stage. We're asking them to practice empathy, practice changing their point of view, seeing things through other people's eyes. When that works, democracy works. When it fails, as I'm very sorry to say that our country's demonstrating right now, the democracy begins to fail.

The simplest thing that we ask for from an audience in the theater is that they care about the characters on stage. We're asking them to practice empathy, practice changing their point of view, seeing things through other people's eyes. When that works, democracy works. When it fails, as I'm very sorry to say that our country's demonstrating right now, the democracy begins to fail.

Charlie Melcher: You've also mentioned the importance of community in theater, that it's sort of in the DNA.

Oskar Eustis: Well, again, theater is, if you think of our society, there are very, very few places where people come together to experience deep things, who don't necessarily agree with each other's ideas. If you're going to a church, everybody's already signed up to your doctrine. If you're going to a political gathering, you already support that politician. But you can go to see a story in the theater no matter what you believe. You can find yourself at theater's best sharing similar experiences with people who were strangers a few minutes ago.

When an audience is laughing together, it's so much better than when you're laughing by yourself. It's so much more joyous. When an audience is crying together, it has a quality of communal grief that reaches deeper and is somehow comforting, more comforting than private grief. So, collectively experienced emotions are what we go for in the theater, and, hopefully, you walk out of a successful theater event feeling part of the community of people who watched it together.

Charlie Melcher: It certainly, at its best, reminds you of your shared humanity.

Oskar Eustis: Exactly, exactly. And again, we're facing a world where the real and present danger of people being able to live inside the echo chamber of their own ideas creates this bizarre kind of siloing of experience, where people can't even agree on what's true anymore, much less what we collectively should think about it. So, a place where we can collectively come together to try and forge shared experiences feels more valuable now than ever.

Charlie Melcher: Do you think that theater gets to something that's more true? Is truth an important part as opposed to fiction?

Oskar Eustis: Well, yeah, except a guy who tells stories for a living would never say truth as opposed to fiction. We do docu-dramas. We do plays that are about real pieces of history and use real people's words. We have that relationship with truth in some of our work. But the fundamental thing that any storyteller in my medium or any other medium has to claim, if they're claiming a place at the grown-ups’ table of our culture, is that you can tell stories that expose deeper truths, and deeper questions, and deeper contradictions about our existence than just reporting the facts. When that happens and when that happens successfully, we all feel it. It's an amazing experience.

Charlie Melcher: The Public was originally created from what I understand, the Public Theater, to have a kind of democratizing force for theater. Maybe that idea that the people who go to theater should be able to be on the stage or to help write some of the shows. Can you talk a little more about that, and how that might be even more important today, and how you try to bring that to life?

Oskar Eustis: Sure. It started as the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954, and from that moment till 1967, what we did was tour free Shakespeare to the parks of New York, all over the city. We reached to parks, and we went to where the people were. What we demonstrated is there was a massive appetite for Free Shakespeare across the city. But in 1967, Joe Papp, our founder, realized that that idea of offering the canon up to the masses was only half of the democratic cultural equation—that in order to really complete that circle, we had to let the masses make the new canon. We had to turn not just the audience over to the people: we had to turn the stage over to the people.

So, this theater, astonishingly enough, the first show that Joe produced indoors, the first show that Joe produced other than Shakespeare, was the world premier of Hair. Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote a terrible review and said that it's as if Mr. Papp took a broom and swept all the trash of the East Village onto the stage of the theater. Joe blew up that terrible review and put it in the lobby, because that was exactly what he was trying to do, put the life of the city on stage! Ever since then, that's what we've strived to do here at the Public, and sometimes we've been lucky enough to succeed.

Charlie Melcher: I had an experience this summer of entering into a theatrical experience that was done through virtual reality, but multi-player virtual reality, so you had many people in there as avatars simultaneously. I think one of the big challenges that we face is that these technologies are still so early, so clunky, and that often the people making them aren't as in tune with the power of real storytelling, the craft of real storytelling, so that they can take the guest on an emotional journey.

Oskar Eustis: You've seen Draw Me Close, haven't you, at the National Theater?

Charlie Melcher: Of course, yes.

Oskar Eustis: It's virtual reality mixed with the live presence of audience and actors, so it's still theater.

Charlie Melcher: Just so that people who are listening understand, that's an experience where you're in a virtual space. You put on VR headset, and you're in there, but having a real time interaction with a live person who's being represented by a virtual being. There is a live interaction, but you're both in a virtual space. Sometimes it can feel like you're in a Pixar movie because you are an animated character and you're interacting in real time in a theatrical way with a real character.

One thing I do love about those, the potential of these new kind of immersive VR-slash-live-actor experiences, is that it gives the person formerly known as the audience member an active role. It lets you play in the space a little bit, like some of the immersive theater shows do as well. What do you think about giving agency to the audience?

Oskar Eustis: I think it's a spectacular idea. I think that there are room for 1,000 flowers to bloom in that field. I think any way that we can blur the distinction between who is creating the art and who is consuming the art is a valuable thing. The professional-artists-in-confrontation-with-the-audience-consumer model has, I think, really revealed itself to be stifling in a lot of ways. It's part of a social structure which seems to suggest that artistry is something that is possessed by a few, and that consumption is something that anybody can do.

Oskar Eustis: We've made a number of experiments about blurring that distinction between audience and artist, blurring the distinction between professionals and non-professionals, all based on a theory that artistry—both the desire, the talent, and the need for that—is a basic property of being a human being. It's not something that's only the possession of a small, trained class. That feels incredibly exciting, and like a democratizing impulse that's, I feel like, is nascent all over the world right now. Figuring out how to do that and figuring out whether, again, technology will be the chief aid to that or in what way it will be an aid to that... those are really exciting things.

Charlie Melcher: I certainly look at the phone, the smartphone, and think, “Here's a device that's enabling people to have creativity, to make things and to share things in a way that the means of production were never mass available.” That doesn't mean it's all good, but it certainly means that there are a lot of people out there making photographs, or making videos, or recording music, or sharing their writing. That is a democratizing effect. Explain or share some of the things that you're doing to democratize theater.

Oskar Eustis: The single program I'm proudest of that we've done over the last eight years, it's called Public Works. And this is a program that we do in collaboration with community-based groups in all five boroughs of New York, serving underserved populations of various kinds. The Fortune Society in Queens, which primarily serves formerly incarcerated people, Children's Aid Society, Domestic Workers United, the Union of Domestic Workers, DreamYard, a kid's art center in the Bronx. We pair with these community organizations. We form year-round, thick, three-dimensional relationships that involve us doing classes, us bringing their constituents to the theater, us doing potlucks, so we actually create community relationships.

And then once a year, we perform these large celebratory pageants in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater, where we do Shakespeare in the Park. 2000-seat theater, the most beautiful theater in New York, which means it's the most beautiful theater in the world, opening in Central Park with a cast of 200-plus people: a small handful of the best actors in New York, the Tony Award-winning actors, and then a huge group of community participants who make this show together. We have affiliates around the country, and even abroad, the National Theater of Great Britain has adopted the Public Works program, in Dallas, in Seattle, in Detroit, and this year we added 14 more associate theaters. It's this idea of turning everybody into creators.

Charlie Melcher: That's amazing. Does that program also go into prisons?

Oskar Eustis: We actually have another program that does that, which is our mobile unit, which now has been reborn, as of the last decade, as an extremely stripped-down, almost always Shakespeare play, which we can perform anywhere with the lights on, anywhere that has a floor and chairs for an audience to sit. So now, twice a year, and soon three times a year, we take shows to prisons, to halfway houses, to the most unlikely and inaccessible places, meaning where the audiences have the least access to work, and we perform.

The work we do in prisons, just, it is so inspiring. Because once you've performed Shakespeare for a prison audience, you realize that humans’ need for these stories is as basic as their need for food, and shelter, and sex. By the end, these artists feel like they own Shakespeare. They feel like they've been invited to a place at the table of our culture, which is just, again, a tremendously inspiring thing to be part of.

Charlie Melcher: It speaks to that fact that stories are a common language of our species. I always say they're the programming language of the human species. They're how we learn about the world, how we learn how we fit into the world, how we learn about ourselves. You don't have to be exposed to formal theater to have grown up with stories being that fundamental to you.

Oskar Eustis: Stories are fundamentally democratizing, because you say “once upon a time,” metaphorically, or you actually say the words, and everyone from a five-year-old kid to the most educated doctor can enter into the story. With Shakespeare, there's a million different levels you can appreciate him on. There's so many riches that I've lived my whole life with those 38 plays, every day, and I'm still learning things from every one of them when I hear it again. But it's democratizing because you don't need a degree. You don't need to have seen it before. You don't need anything at all except your humanity and a willingness to listen to enter into those stories. That's what's so important about it—because we're all equal in the face of a good story.

Charlie Melcher: Beautifully said. Do you believe that theater, and I will go one step further, storytelling, has that ability to help weave us back together as a nation?

Oskar Eustis: I've experienced it. I've experienced it every day of my professional life, and I've experienced it specifically on the tour that we created to respond to this perception, which is in the fall of '18, we toured Lynn Nottage's brilliant play, Sweat, to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. We played in union halls, and churches, and food pantries. We played for audiences that were politically diverse, racially diverse, economically diverse, and again, the great majority of them, not theater-goers.

Oskar Eustis: What I saw as those people identified with the folks on stage, the sense of depth and commonality they experienced. And then we would have these fantastic post-show discussions, and I say fantastic because they were incredibly deep. They were non-ideological. Nobody in any of the cities talked about who they voted for. Nobody said the words Democratic or Republican. Nobody talked about our skill in making a play. They talked about their lives.

Charlie Melcher: I've seen that so many times myself. We do a thing at the Future of StoryTelling called the Story Exchange. It comes from an organization called Narrative 4. You get people telling their own personal stories. You put them into pairs, and one shares a story, and the other shares their story, but then each of them has to stand up in front of the group and tell the story of the other in first person.

Oskar Eustis: Beautiful.

Charlie Melcher: It creates an incredible emotional and empathetic connection. But simply once you remind people of what's inside, and the tremendous amount that we have in common, as opposed to exaggerating the small amounts that we have that divide us, you remind us of our humanity and our common humanity.

Oskar Eustis: Aristotle said, “The earliest and most pleasurable form of learning is imitation.” It is what kids do. They play characters, and by playing them, they start to feel like they own them and can inhabit them. It's the same thing for us as adults. It's when we either actively get up and play somebody else, or if we just in our mind imagine, identify with them, care about their experience, it changes who we are. It expands our own self, and boy, do we need that.

Charlie Melcher: I think we need a Department of Storytelling. Maybe this needs to be a national emergency or priority.

Oskar Eustis: Yeah, I would advocate for a Department of Storytelling that seeded thousands of different storytellers in different places. Because one thing we really don't want is somebody telling us what the true story is. We want to let a thousand stories flow.

Charlie Melcher: Exactly. So, let me ask you, what advice would you give to storytellers today? And when I say storytellers, I do mean it broadly. We have a big umbrella at FoST, and we're looking to bring people from many disciplines. But the core of what makes great stories, I don't think changes really from medium to medium.

Oskar Eustis: What I say to storytellers all the time is: don't think small. Think as big as you can think. Look how big Shakespeare thought. Because in Shakespeare, there's no such thing as a private relationship. Two people never have a relationship that doesn't involve their parents, their families, their country, their prince, their political position. Everything is seen in the web of society. He also, he does the thing that Lin-Manuel Miranda did so brilliantly in Hamilton, which is take the language of common people and elevate it into verse, and by doing so, give tremendous nobility to the people speaking the verse.

It's so important that one of the things the stage can do is take people who are seen as the objects of history, the enemies, the others, the not, and make them the subjects of history, and make them the heroes of their own story. Every great breakthrough in the theater, for me, has been accomplished by somebody taking center stage and getting to be the hero of the story, who we previously have not thought of as heroes, who have been consigned to the margins. And that, seeing the noble in the mundane, seeing the big in the small, writing the stories of, you know, it can be your father and mother, but seeing them in their biggest aspect—that, to me, is the thing we want storytelling to do right now.

Charlie Melcher: I think that's a beautiful way to end this conversation. Thank you so much, sir. This has been an honor, and a pleasure, and we're very excited to have you come join us at the summit.

Oskar Eustis: I'll be delighted to be there. Thank you.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you for joining us, and a special thanks to Oskar Eustis for his inspiring conversation. We hope you enjoyed listening. If you liked this discussion and want to hear more, we'd really appreciate it if you would subscribe and rate our podcast. If you know someone who'd enjoy our show, please be sure to pass it along. Tell a colleague, tell a friend, tell a family member, help us spread the word. Thank you for your time, and a big thank you to our talented production partner, Charts & Leisure. We'll see you next week with another conversation. Please be safe, be strong, and story on. For more information about Future of StoryTelling and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit us at fost.org.