When Oskar Eustis was 15, nothing could keep him away from New York — except for Bob Dylan. As a Minneapolis teen obsessed with experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines, the man who is now the artistic director of the Public Theater fled home for Manhattan — but he delayed his departure by a month to await the 1975 release of a new Dylan album, and savored the ritual of hearing the first play-through when the local radio station cued up the record right at midnight. “I sat in my bed in my father’s house listening to ‘Blood on the Tracks’ all the way through,” Eustis recalls. “And the next day I came to New York.”
Now Eustis is helping to shepherd into New York a new play-with-music featuring Dylan tunes, “Girl From the North Country,” with a run at the Public (it opened on Oct. 1) — and like any musical that the nonprofit company has a hand in developing, it’s now a project of interest for the industry at large. That’s because over the course of Eustis’ tenure, the Public has become a hot spot for breakout titles that have included the back-to-back Tony winners “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.”
At the same time, driven by the ideals of legendary founder Joseph Papp, Eustis has supersized the organization’s civic-minded projects and greatly expanded its reach. Public Works, the community-focused performance initiative, is rapidly spreading to theaters around the country and to London, while free mobile productions of Shakespeare go out to all five boroughs, and “Sweat,” the Pulitzer winner first produced in New York at the Public, is prepping to tour the Rust Belt.
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“The Public really walks the walk of its values because of Oskar,” says Shaina Taub, the fast-rising composer who wrote the score for the Public Works production of “Twelfth Night” and was recently tapped to work with Elton John on the score for the upcoming musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada.” “It doesn’t just pay lip service to inclusion and diversity; it really practices it.”
The company’s downtown complex is gearing up for a 2018-19 season that features both buzzy newcomers and big names like Glenn Close (“Mother of the Maid”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Sea Wall/A Life”) and Suzan-Lori Parks (“White Noise”). Across the street, The Public will soon open a space with a cluster of rehearsal rooms for new-work development. And with its Free Shakespeare in the Park program wrapping the much-lauded run of Taub’s “Twelfth Night” (which Eustis co-directed), it’s clearer than ever that Eustis has managed to make the Public into a formidable commercial force while staying true to the organization’s grassroots as a noisy downtown activist, pushing for broad-spectrum inclusivity and unafraid to stand in opposition to the current political administration.
“The Public is integral to the health and development of theater in America,” says Jeffrey Seller, the commercial producer of “Hamilton.” “And I think right now it’s at an all-time high in its ability to make work that’s reaching many audiences.”
Over his 13 years at the company, Eustis has aimed to shore up the infrastructure of an organization that had had a reputation for administrative and financial turbulence. The $45 million operating budget — up from $14 million when Eustis joined in 2005 — doesn’t include the significant revenue brought in each year by “Hamilton”; the Public won’t cop to how much it gets annually from that show (north of $3 million, by some estimates), but will say it’s putting it into the theater’s rainy-day reserve.
In the era of art funding’s precipitous decline, the Public is possibly the most prominent of the nation’s nonprofits making it work by straddling the line between the not-for-profit and commercial worlds. Other regional-theater types may bristle at the muddying of artistic and civic purity, and commercial pros can complain that nonprofits have unfair advantages. But to Eustis, it’s all as central to the Public’s mission as something like Public Works.
“To choose not to participate in the commercial system is basically a choice to remove yourself from the central economic engines of the American theater,” he says. “Joe’s idea of the Public was that we could be central to the culture and be radical, and what that means right now is that we need to participate in Broadway. It’s what it meant in Joe’s time too,” he adds, citing early Public-spawned successes “Hair” and “A Chorus Line.”
Eustis, as prone to quoting Marx or Obama as Chekhov, has never been afraid to get political, from back in the ’80s — when he commissioned the play that would become “Angels in America” for San Francisco’s Eureka Theater — to last year, when he directed the Central Park production of “Julius Caesar” that drew attacks from the president over its depiction of a Trump-like Caesar. Eustis relishes taking a stand: “At the end of it I felt that it was good for the institution, that it was something important, and it was significant that the artistic director had done it, not just somebody we hired.”
By the time “Julius Caesar” was prompting protests, “Hamilton” had cemented the Public’s status as an in-demand partner for commercial producers shepherding ambitious musical projects. “I never set out to do that, but it’s becoming an increasingly unique part of our profile,” Eustis says. “What I think we can do here is provide just enough distance from the commercial pressure. We get the artists in and say, ‘The focus here is not going to be about selling tickets. It’s going to be on “What is this thing that you’ve made?”’”