Oskar Eustis and the A.R.T. of love

by Alicia Anstead

Love Letters to the A.R.T. on Feb. 14 is a fundraiser for the American Repertory Theater, but it is a love letter of another sort, too. In addition to enjoying cocktails and dinner, attendees can expect lovin' performances by writer Joan Parker, author Ben Mezrich, TV personality Tonya Chen Mezrich, Tony Award-nominated actor Gavin Creel and singer/songwriter Sally Taylor. But the sweetheart love letter of the night goes to Oskar Eustis, recipient of the 2011 Robert Brustein Award -- named after A.R.T.'s venerable founder. Eustis, who is artistic director of The Public Theater in New York and former artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, is a tireless supporter of American theater and artists. He was also the producer for the Broadway revival of the musical Hair, which garnered A.R.T.'s artistic director Diane Paulus a Tony Award. Eustis' work is all about taking chances. And Monday's celebration -- taking place on Valentine's Day -- is a riff on why we love the visionaries of theater. With so much love in the air, Harvard Arts Beat bloghead Alicia Anstead spoke with Eustis. Below is an edited and condensed version our their conversation.

Tell us about working with Diane Paulus.

She’s fearless about re-imagining what a theatrical event could or should be, and then proceeding to figure out how to make that exciting to the broadest possible audience. That’s a relative rarity. We tend to – in this field – divide into those who look inward and care more about the art, and those who look outward and care more about show business. Diane is a remarkable combination of the two. I’m proud enough to feel like Hair was a big deal in

that evolution. With Hair, she handled all the competing influences of producing a classic musical, working first in the Park and then in a Broadway house, and then the touring production, and also dealing with a group of extremely young artists – the actors making the show – and a group of extremely senior artists – the creators who made the show in the first place. And dealing with them with equal finesse and charisma. On Hair, the results were spectacular. But her mind applied to a wide variety of other work is going to produce great results.

What is your sense of Robert Brustein, the man after whom this award is named?

I’m a little silly on the subject of Bob, and it probably has to do with my father fixations. There’s no question he feels like a surrogate father to me, primarily in a professional sense. Bob was absolutely essential to creating the field in which I’ve spent my life. He wasn’t simply a pioneer and unbelievably important figure in the nonprofit American theater movement; he was the person who postulated that there was a connection between intellectual achievement and artistic daring and experimentation that could have an ongoing professional life in the American theater.

Sounds like he has been a powerful role model for you.

Absolutely. What has happened in my career is unimaginable if Bob hadn’t existed. He laid down the template, created the institutions. Many years ago, I said Bob made the theater safe for smart people. It’s really true.

What’s important for students to know about the presence of arts on their campus?

There are two ways to approach that. The first is pedagogical. Harvard is the greatest university in the United States, and it’s so important that Harvard not only continue what it has done but expand what it has done to make the statement to all those brilliant people there who are going to be running the world that the arts are essential to understanding what it is to be a full human being. We can also view the arts on a public policy level. As students go out in the world and become influential and powerful in the world, they need to help make the arts accessible to the entire society because without the arts, our society is hollow to the core. Why do we venerate the Greeks? Because of the art they created. Obviously, many other aspects of the Greeks were models for us, but the arts communicated those models and made democracy not simply a political idea but a core moral value. I am happier knowing that the people going through Harvard will be exposed to that on a consistent basis.

What advice do you have for students as emerging artists, who are hungry to get their art performed, staged, shown?

I have two pieces of advice. One is: Find artists you believe in, you care about, whose works and careers you would like to emulate – and get close to them. Figure out how to be in their presence, how to get a direct laying on of hands. That’s how the arts work, through personal transmission. The second is: This is a time in your life that will never come again. For most people when they are young, they have far fewer responsibilities than they will accumulate over the years. When you’re young is the time to be brave, to try things that scare you, to take risks with your life, to travel to places. It’s the time to be bold.

[Caption: Oskar Eustis PHOTO: BRIGITTE LACOMBE]

[Caption: Eustis, Diane Paulus and Joey Parnes, executive producer of "Hair"]