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A fond farewell
Oskar Eustis reflects on his Trinity years

Going Public

Oskar Eustis has been leaving Trinity Repertory Company ever since he hit town a decade ago to become its artistic director. Itís just that heís been conducting the process oh-so-reluctantly.

No one who knew his background, itemized below, thought that Providence could hold him forever. The Big Apple, the center of the English-speaking theater universe, just might be spacious enough.

That reluctance to leave Trinity prematurely was no lip-service. This is the man who in 2002 turned down the job of dean of the Yale School of Drama and head of Yale Rep. That is, a man who hadn't finished college himself declined what is arguably the most prestigious academic theater position in the country. (Though the offer wasnít declared publicly, Eustis announced it to at least one company member.) In an interview at the time, he said it would be "unconscionable" to leave Trinity while so many plans were in the works. He said that he would stay for at least three more years, and he kept the commitment with months to spare, even though a year later Los Angelesí Mark Taper Forum tempted him with an offer.

Eustis, 47, came to a theater company that was hemorrhaging money. Founding artistic director Adrian Hall was notoriously cavalier about the lavish expense of some productions, leaving the money problems to a revolving door succession of managing directors. Successor Anne Bogart handed over her first and only season to directors who could stage their most outré favorites, and subscriptions plummeted. For a few transitional years, former company member Richard Jenkins put his Hollywood career on hold to fill in. And then in 1994 came Oskar. Eustis leaves Trinity not only in the black but with double the subscribers, with upwards of $20 million from a capital campaign, and a fattened endowment.

And then thereís the little matter of the Brown/Trinity Consortium. The amalgam of Trinity Rep Conservatory and the ivy universityís theater department has put Providence on the short list of preeminent theater training programs in the country.

The arc of Eustisís early career would be too implausible for a realistic drama. Raised in Minnesota, Eustis was the precocious son of a prominent lawyer and an aggressively intellectual mother who encouraged his acting in small theaters when he was a child. Graduating as a National Merit Scholar at age 15, Eustis went on to Manhattan. After studying avant-garde approaches and concerns with Mabou Mines and the Iowa Theatre Lab, he founded the Red Wing Theatre Company in New York. Two years later, in 1978, the 19-year-old Wunderkind was in Switzerland earning $1500 per week co-directing the experimental second stage of the Zürich Schauspielhaus. It was in Europe over the next three years that he became intrigued with dramaturgy, which was relied upon in the German-speaking theater.

Eustis became most widely known as the man who commissioned Tony Kushnerís Angels In America, when he headed San Franciscoís Eureka Theater Company beginning in 1981. By 1992, when he directed the world premiere of Part I at the Mark Taper Forum, where he was then associate artistic director, his reputation as a dramaturge for new plays was assured.

The job of a dramaturge is to help sail a play as well as possible through headwinds and shoals, relying on where the play itself seems to want to reach. Sometimes the playwright doesnít clearly know during development; sometimes a director doesnít during a later production. At Trinity, Eustis has made a practice of ending seasons with a new play thatís been developed if not commissioned here. For the past five years, Trinity has become a magnet for Native American playwrights in its Theater From the Four Directions program, of which the current BuzíGem Blues is the latest effort.

Eustis isnít coyly modest, but much about him isnít widely known. A recent Boston radio interview posted online was headed "Oskar Who?"

Now that heís going Public, the word will be getting out.

ó B.R.

Oskar Eustis still loves us, Providence. Itís just that itís time for him to go.

So May 31 is his last day at Trinity Rep, where for the past six months heís been part-timing it. He leaves the theater in the able hands of Amanda Dehnert, acting artistic director, and the board of directorsí search committee.

Heís off to head the house that legend Joseph Papp built, New Yorkís Public Theater, which is the preeminent breeding ground, inspiration and, to a large extent, the social conscience of American theater. Its main mission has come to be to develop and stage world premieres of socially aware new plays ó from Hair to Noise/Funk, with A Chorus Line thrown in for good measure, garnering 38 Tonys and four Pulitzers. In a radio interview a few weeks ago, Eustis said that heís wanted that job since he was a boy ó and, unabashedly, that heís the right guy for it.

Providence and Trinity Rep have changed him. For example, Eustis admits that before working with musical-theater whiz kid Dehnert, he rejected musicals as beneath serious consideration. Since then, Trinity Rep has done innovative takes on classics such as Peter Pan and this year premiered You Never Know. Eustisís debut musical, The Music Man, recruited school marching bands from around the state to perform the big finale.

At Rue De LíEspoir, around the corner from his home, over a breakfast of heart-healthy apple-topped oatmeal, Eustis said good-bye.

Q: When someone asks what your high point was at Trinity ó a production or otherwise ó what comes to mind first?

A: Music Man and the Consortium (see sidebar) ó which I think is more defensible as a genuine high point. But those two things. Music Man was the most purely joyful experience that I ever had in the theater. Itís inextricably bound up for me with the birth of Jack, because he was actually born during tech. It also felt like the show that I did that was the most uniquely Rhode Island ó Iím sure it never would have occurred to me to do that show anywhere but here. And the actual creation of it was so fun ó I just loved it so much.

And the Consortium, in a very real way Iím hoping that this will be the most important thing that Iíve accomplished. I used to joke to [my wife] Laurie that it was really depressing that at the age of 32 I knew what my obituary headline would be: "Oskar Eustis Developed Angels in America." When this Consortium got founded, I said to Laurie this is the first thing Iíve done where I had a feeling it might add a second line.

Q: Obviously there are things you can do at the Public that you couldnít attempt here. What is your ambition?

A: Over the last few years I had settled into a niche at Trinity, where every spring upstairs at Trinity Amanda would be doing a big show, usually a musical, which employed most of the company and sold a ton of tickets, and I would be downstairs with three or four people having spent the year working on a new play that was always very, very respectfully received but never a huge audience-pleaser. That was true of Homebody/Kabul, that was true of A Long Christmas Ride Home, and it was true of Ruby Sunrise.

What had become clear in the last few years was that where the heart of my aesthetic interest was was separate, really, from the heart of the audienceís aesthetic interests. Not that they were against it. So I said: The writing is on the wall here. This is an arrangement that I have with the audience at this point. Theyíll let me go downstairs and do this stuff.

Q: Do you think your approach has brought along the Providence audience to appreciate better plays?

A: Absolutely. Although Iíd also say that the audience has brought me along. I think itís a very dialectic relationship. When it works ó and Iím immodest enough to think that it has worked often enough in the last 11 years ó what I think happens is that you affect the audience and the audience affects you. Part of that is by becoming one of them. I feel like over the past 11 years Iíve really become a Rhode Islander.

There have been times when I was feeling that I was going to die here: spend the rest of my life here and get buried here, and that would be fine. I was actually excited about my life. But itís almost as if I feel like Iím returning to my real identity as a theater person, which is: a real identity is peripatetic. We actually are at home nowhere; we move around; we live in an ephemeral world of a community of spirits, not a community of geography. That has always been true of the theatrical profession. That has always been true of my life heretofore. So thereís a funny kind of way in which I feel like Iím shedding a skin. When I first left home I moved a block away from the Public, 30 years ago.

Q: What was your toughest problem to solve at Trinity? Financial? The theaterís mission?

A: I think the toughest problem that I feel I made real progress on but not completely solved is laying down an architecture for how the acting company can remain a prominent part of the institution without becoming frozen and sclerotic in terms of simply an unchanging group of folks.

What I would have liked ideally is to have passed off to the next artistic director an acting company ó I love this acting company, itís a great acting company ó but to have passed off also a system that is understandable and transparent and normal, of how that acting company would turn over and rejuvenate and some people would leave and new people would come in. Made it normative, so that it rejuvenates and refreshes itself. And I feel like Iíve only partially done that. Maybe itís an impossible task, because maybe ultimately you don't systematize these things. I worry about it because in the absence of that system at most theaters that have had companies, when artistic directors change those companies get abolished.

Q: Whatís your parting advice to your successor? Or maybe a warning.

A: Abandon all hope (laughs). Depending on the person, Iíd be giving different advice. They will have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. The balancing act has been the most difficult part of this job, which is to really be part of this community, not stand outside it, not judge it, not be removed from it. And yet from that position of being part of the community to try to change it. Give it things that it doesnít know it wants. And thatís a tough balancing act for any artistic director. But I feel like itís the key to making these kinds of jobs work.

Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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