Public expands its horizon

New York theater optimistic about 2007-08

Ask Oskar Eustis about his plans for the Public Theater, and he’ll tell you that, for him, more is more.

“Everything I say is about volume,” he says. “Occasionally my board despairs.”

When Eustis took over as artistic director of the half-century-old Public in 2005, Gotham legiters wondered how the former head of Rhode Island’sTrinity Rep would make his mark on an org with strong-willed leadership in its DNA.

His time at the Public has yet to yield a tenure-defining show — as “A Chorus Line” and “Hair” were for Public founder Joseph Papp, or “Angels in America” and “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” were for Papp successor George C. Wolfe.

But with the announcement of the second full season Eustis has programmed, the venerable company’s future has begun to take shape.

Six of the seven shows on the 2007-08 slate are co-productions with other theaters. The lineup includes the return to the Public of established dramatists such as Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, David Henry Hwang and Richard Nelson; two plays by writers at earlier stages of their career; and the first Public outing from experimental troupe the Wooster Group.

There’s also a commercial life brewing for “Passing Strange,” one of the hits at the Public last season, as well as a fall concert presentation of “Hair” that could be the first step toward a full revival of the iconic 1967 anti-war tuner.

The “Hair” concert is part of a Joe’s Pub in the Park summer series that features a long list of performers including Jill Sobule, Patty Griffin and Justin Bond. And Eustis hints at ambitious plans for broadening programs to support developing writers, directors and thesps.

“In some ways, the programming is expanding back to when ‘Chorus Line’ was pouring money into the coffers,” says Public exec director Mara Manus. “Chorus Line” originated at the Public in 1975 before jumping to a 15-year run on Broadway and becoming a legit staple. (The show’s current revival kicks back “a modest but real percentage of the net profits” to the theater, Eustis says.)

The return of Churchill, whose work has not been seen at the Public since “The Skriker” in 1996, is particularly notable, since it’s been said that the scribe, alienated by past experiences, had vowed never to set foot in the building again.

Eustis, however, has a long history with the Brit playwright, stretching back to his tenure in the 1980s at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater. That association helped bring her back with her latest play, “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?”

Returning with “Kicking a Dead Horse,” Shepard has been absent from the Public since “Simpatico,” in 1994. David Henry Hwang, whose “Yellow Face” bows at the Public in the fall, was last at the theater with “Golden Child” in 1996.

The newest writer on the bill is Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose “The Brothers Size” Eustis has been talking up since it got a showcase at the Public’s Under the Radar fest last season. After presenting a full production of the show this fall, the a.d. has plans next season to produce a trilogy of which “Size” is one part. (Exact dates for the 2007-08 season have not yet been determined.)

With a broad mandate to champion both Shakespeare and new writers, as well as to foster accessibility and diversity in the arts, the Public has a lot of balls to keep in the air. That helps explain its consistently growing budget: Five years ago, the operating budget was about $11 million, according to Manus, while the upcoming season looks to come in at $18 million.

You’d think all those co-productions — with orgs including Gotham companies LAByrinth, Arts at St. Ann’s and the Foundry Theater; Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group; the U.K.’s Royal Court and Ireland’s Abbey — would help mitigate costs, but no.

“It doesn’t save us any money. I wish it did,” Eustis says, explaining that the advantages are entirely creative. “When you’re developing a new work, you can’t do better than putting it up in front of a smart audience for six to eight weeks.”

“Passing Strange,” for instance, benefited from its run at co-producer Berkeley Rep in 2006 before hitting the Public last spring. “The show that opened in Berkeley is not the show that opened in New York,” Eustis says.

The creator of “Strange,” performance artist Stew, is continuing to work on the show in preparation for a potential commercial life in New York. (With his band the Negro Problem, and cast members from “Passing Strange,” Stew also will perform in the Joe’s Pub in the Park lineup.)

A future berth for the well-reviewed tuner, which chronicles a young black bohemian’s self-searching journey through Europe, would be an attention-grabber for the Public. What would provoke even more interest, though, is a full revival of “Hair.”

The concert performance of the much-loved musical, directed by Diane Paulus (“The Donkey Show”) and running for three nights in September, might set the stage for a full-scale comeback. “In a way, what we’re doing is trying out a set of relationships and seeing if the team works well together,” Eustis says. “I’d love to do a full revival.”

But the a.d., echoing a refrain repeated by leaders of nonprofits all across the city, insists a big commercial splash isn’t the point.

“We have to get the fund-raising focus on our mission objectives,” he says. “Commercial transfers are a real distraction from that.”

Eustis puts expanded support of new writers at the top of the list of goals he has yet to achieve at the Public. “How is it possible in a broad, high-volume way to produce new plays from new writers?” he asks.

He offers no details about brewing plans, but a recent, successful workshop run of Winter Miller’s “In Darfur” seems as if it could serve as a production model for a potential long-term developmental program.

He adds that the works of Shakespeare, which get a couple of nods every summer with the annual Shakespeare in the Park outings, need boosting at the Public, especially in offering training opportunities for actors to perform classics. (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” helmed by Daniel Sullivan, begins perfs in the park this month, and in the fall the Wooster Group takes on “Hamlet.”)

Still, the new season has a sense of the breadth that Eustis aims to expand. “There are representations of just about everything the Public, in its complicated mandate, stands for,” he says.

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