In the 15 years that Oskar Eustis has led New York’s Public Theater, the company has tripled its annual budget to $45 million and premiered some of the most influential shows in theater: Eustis produced the very first staging of “Hamilton” in 2015. He launched Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” on a tour to politically divided American cities last year, including Mankato.
A major-domo of the field, Eustis also mentored at least five protégés appointed to lead theaters across the country in the past year. Maria Manuela Goyanes, his former student and right-hand person, now runs Woolly Mammoth in D.C. Stephanie Ybarra, who formerly ran the Mobile Unit at the Public, now helms Baltimore Center Stage. Public Theater producer Jacob Padrón runs New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Rob Melrose, another mentee, heads Houston’s Alley Theatre. And Marissa Wolf, whom Eustis has known since she was 10, holds the reins at Portland Center Stage.
Further back, Eustis’ roster of mentees also included Joseph Haj of the Guthrie.
“It’s been a good year of legacies,” Eustis said. “From the time I got the job, part of my stated mission was to make sure that by the time I stepped down, the board has a rich pool of highly experienced theater leaders who totally get what the Public is. In the meantime, if that means they run a lot of other theaters in the country, that’s fine with me.”
A Red Wing native who grew up in Minneapolis, Eustis, 60, ran companies in Providence, R.I., (Trinity Rep) and San Francisco (Eureka Theatre) before landing at the Public. We reached him in New York ahead of this week’s trip to Minneapolis for a talk at Mixed Blood Theatre. The conversation has been lightly edited.
Q: For a moment there this past year, it seemed like any new artistic director appointed in the country had to come through you.
A: Now, now. I would literally never describe it that way.
Q: But you have cultivated a lot of new leaders.
A: I figured it’s the universe telling me it’s getting closer for me to retire. The kids are taking over.
It’s always been very important to me to teach, mentor, pass on to the next generation. That’s a personal value. And since coming to the Public, it has become terribly important to me to try and raise a generation of theater-makers who understand the value system of this place.
Q: That’s a value system that’s being nationalized. Can you re-articulate it for us?
A: The basic idea is the democratic idea. Theater, like the culture as a whole, belongs to the people and should be of, by and for the people. That means the work should be created by as wide and diverse a cross-section of the artists that the country can produce. It should be viewed by the widest cross-section of the people we can reach, and the content of the stories should follow suit.
Q: How did someone from Red Wing become this ardent tribune of the people?
A: Are you trying to cast shade on Red Wing? My parents divorced and remarried. So one branch of my family was very progressive in the McCarthy-Mondale-Humphrey mode. And the other branch of my family had members of the Communist Party. I was raised between those poles — those points of view in the ’60s and ’70s. I come by it from my parents and my epoch.
Q: People are still fighting over the meaning of the ’60s. Was it was the beginning of the decline or a breakthrough?
A: I’m definitely on the breakthrough-enfranchisement view. Like the Public Theater, I feel like I’m a little bit going counter-current in saying that these values I was raised with and that the Public was founded on are still the most important values no matter how many times you cut the taxes of the wealthy.
The model that we have [in our politics] right now is disturbingly analogous to fascism, where you have extremely wealthy money interests being led by a populist demagogue who’s stirring up hatred and anger. ... I’m not saying we’re a fascist country. But I have to say you can see a road there that was not visible a couple of years ago.
Q: What’s the role of art and artists at a time like this?
A: It’s difficult and complicated. There are a couple of currents that we can clearly describe. Artists are being forced to plant stakes in the ground for what they really believe in and stand by them. And other artists are trying to figure out ways to talk to the people who feel like we’re the enemy. Hopefully, we’ll have some impact.
Q: It’s a crucible moment but some people just want to go to the theater, see “Hello, Dolly!” and be taken away.
A: There’s absolutely a place for entertainment, for joy and celebration. Theater is all about the ability to celebrate together, to experience joy and create a sense of what is good about human life. But that can’t be all there is.
One of the things I love about the theater is that we can be useful in helping people understand their times and their place in it. It’s our job to try to fulfill the democratic function of the theater. And in order to do that, we have to talk about serious subjects.
Q: And that includes the formation of our democracy, as evidenced by “Hamilton.”
A: “Hamilton,” of course, is making a huge statement about diversity and about who owns the story of America. And it’s making that statement in the most subversive way just by being cast that way. It’s not making an argument about ideology. It’s just watching black and brown people own the foundations of this country.
Q: You’re also shepherding plays rooted in today’s topics.
A: A play like “Sweat” is the best play we have about the source of the anger that led to Trump’s election. We have plays going on now like Suzan-Lori Parks’ “White Noise” [about four friends dealing with a racial police incident]. We are about to revive a play that we opened 40 years ago, Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which was both a landmark at the time and the very first play by a black woman to go to Broadway. Also, you see it now and say, the #MeToo movement happened 40 years ago, it just happened to black women, and now it’s happening to the culture as a whole.
Q: You’re coming to Mixed Blood for a salon conversation. Can you tell us what Minnesotans should expect?
A: I’m probably going to talk about the things that Jack [Mixed Blood Theatre founder Jack Reuler] and I share. Mixed Blood has been a spiritual partner for many, many years. They’re obviously of a much different scale than the Public Theater. But what Jack believes and has always believed has a lot to do with what we care about. I suspect we will also talk about the role that theater has at the moment — what theater can do to promote equality and democracy.