Episode 011 Transcript
Drama, Democracy & Hamilton with Oskar Eustis (3/31/18)
MELISSA FRIEDMAN: Hi, this is Melissa Friedman, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Epic Theater Ensemble in New York City. You are listening to Point of Learning with my friend Peter Horn. I am so excited to hear this conversation with Oskar Eustis!
PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today’s show, a titan of American theatre discusses the dramatic possibilities of the classroom …
OSKAR EUSTIS: Connect and spark and kindle in each other that human connection between the people in the room, that the people in the room are together getting excited about that third thing, that play or that idea or that other thing and when that happens, people are learning from each other, not information, but they're learning from the connection that they form with each other, which is, of course, what theater's all about.
[VO]: Plus a thing or two he’s never shared before in an interview …
OSKAR: The one I'm going to talk about is actually somebody I've never talked about, my high school drama teacher, Carl Shutts …
[VO]: And his unprecedented plan to release the rights for Hamilton to high schools before professional regional theaters …
OSKAR: It would make, in high schools across the country, the theater department the cool place to be. And what a change that would be! What it would it be, to be saying to young teenagers of color, urban teenagers, “You know what? Yes, there's hip hop. Yes, there's music. Yes, but you know what there also is? There’s theatre!” It would just be a huge boon for our profession to bring in talent like that.
[VO]: If it’s possible to be a prodigy of the theatre—I don’t mean as an actor, but as a director, producer, and dramaturg; as somebody who makes theatre happen—Oskar Eustis is such a prodigy. Founding his first theatre company at the age of 16 after moving to New York from Minnesota, Eustis has been intimately involved in the creation and development of a significant number of the greatest works of US theatre of the past 30 years—from Angels in America to Hamilton, and many, many more. Throughout the 1980s Oskar worked at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, moving in ’89 to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where he commissioned and directed the world premiere of Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. From 1994 to 2005 he was Artistic Director of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, which was the period where I got to meet him, first as a director and then a professor. Which may not be the most memorable element to Oskar from this chapter of his life, but it’s my podcast. Oskar has been a champion of new plays throughout his career, directing world premieres by Rinne Groff, Larry Wright, Paula Vogel, Philip Kan Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, Emily Mann, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ellen McLaughlin, Eduardo Machado, the list goes on. Since 2005, Oskar has been Artistic Director of the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan, famous first for founder Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare in the Park, but in the years since as the birthplace of the musicals Hair, and A Chorus Line, and during Oskar's tenure, the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary Hamilton: An American Musical. It was my pleasure to join Oskar in his office at the Public last month [15 February 2018], where we sat down to talk about the teacher who helped set Oskar on his path, about what teachers today might do with Shakespeare in the classroom, about drama and its connection to democracy, and of course, a little Hamilton, in addition to current projects that the Public Theater is undertaking. Given the many sources of material available, I knew I wouldn’t have too much trouble sketching a brief bio of Oskar at the outset, but I did ask him what he wanted me to highlight. Here’s what he said, plus the sound of me suddenly adjusting the mic when I realized he was opening with what would not be ordinary background material.
OSKAR: From my point of view, the most important parts of my biography when I look back is that I was raised by Communists, I was raised by recovering alcoholic … I didn't go to college, or didn't have an academic education, and that I basically started from making theaters myself for nothing with friends, and built that up until I ended up here at the Public, so that there was nothing sort of top-down about how my career developed. It was all sort of built up from the bottom, so to speak.
PETER [in interview]: You left Minnesota when you were 15.
OSKAR: I turned 16 about four weeks later.
PETER: But you had graduated high school.
OSKAR: I graduated at 15.
PETER: Was that skipping two grades, or—?
OSKAR: The essence of it was Minnesota, in its last-ditch attempt to avoid forced busing because this is the early 1970s and Minnesota was desperately trying to avoid forced busing, as were many cities in the country. So, they created a magnet school in the all-Black school, Central High in Minneapolis. And literally this was the value proposition: any White kid with a B+ or better average who could voluntarily bus himself into the Central High School could graduate early. So, what they did was in 1970 to take a bunch of liberal Hippies with parents who would approve this kind of thing, who were smart and White and put them in an all-Black school and give them special privileges! It was maybe the worst educational idea I’ve ever encountered, but it meant I'd already skipped a grade earlier and it meant I could skip another grade, which is something I would never advise anybody. And that's why I got out when I was 15!
PETER: Then you helped co-found a theater, Red Wing? Named after the town in Minnesota?
OSKAR: Of course it is. You betcha! Red Wing, Minnesota. It's the rare day today that I'm not wearing Red Wing boots. I take Red Wing very seriously here. When I got to New York, I lived at the Performing Garage, met a young Swiss, a theatre guy named Stephan Müller, who had gotten a grant from the Swiss government to come over here for two years to study experimental theatre. We teamed up and together we founded Red Wing in February of ‘76, and that was my first theatre company.
PETER: I took your class during the summer of 2003, after I had been teaching English for six years. As a teacher, one of the things I noticed first was the reverence you seemed to have for teaching, and your stated wish to do it as well as you could. You were modest about your teaching ability, disclaiming at the outset of the course something like, “Well, if you don’t get much out of the class itself, at least you will have read some great plays.”
[VO]: That summer course at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English was called Modern American Drama, with works by a spectrum of writers, including Cuban and Canadian First Nations, Asian American, Native American, Latino, Puerto Rican, Black, Jewish, lesbian and gay playwrights, each illuminating conflicts in what it is to be human by means of different lenses. If you’re curious about specific authors and titles, the course reading list is on the show page.
PETER: How do you think about the role of teaching? You know, this is an education podcast, so I wanted to ask—
OSKAR: The line about, you know, “Even if I'm not a good teacher, at least you will have read a lot of good plays”—that was actually my mother's line. My mother said that about teaching. She was the Chair of Women's Studies at the University of Minnesota, and she said that was what she said in order to calm herself down and suggest that she was not wasting the time of her students, no matter what. (Of course, she was a wonderful teacher.) In that class, there are a couple things going on. On the one hand, what's happening is that students are coming into contact with what I think are some of the great works of theatre art of our history and that by putting that together, they're starting to understand an arc of what the theater has done in the United States. And you start to see a story there and start to understand how plays fit into that story. And therefore, maybe you can find some measure of your own story. And on the other hand, what's happening, I hope, is there's an infectious quality of excitement. You’ve got to figure out a way in the classroom that your enthusiasm or excitement for something as a teacher, but also your students’ enthusiasm, can connect and spark and kindle in each other that human connection between the people in the room, so that the people in the room are together getting excited about that third thing, that play, or that idea, or that other thing, and when that happens, people are learning from each other, not information, but they're learning from the connection that they form with each other, which is, of course, what theatre is all about. That's what theatre depends on.
[VO]: As he was growing up, Oskar’s parents and step-parents were all educators.
OSKAR: [My mother] was Chair of Women’s Studies at the University of Minnesota. My step-father was a professor of physics. My step-mother was a professor of sociology in the Humphrey Institute, and my father was a professor in the Law School. So. So, you know, although I didn't spend that much time in the classroom as a student, I was living in a world that was completely surrounded by educators!
PETER: Was there a teacher for you who was influential?
OSKAR: There were a lot. But the one I'm going to talk about is actually somebody I've never talked about, my high school drama teacher, Carl Shutts. Carl was in the English department, like in a lot of high schools, but he ran the drama program because that’s what English departments did. This school was, as I said, an all-Black high school until all these White kids showed up! So it was about 15 percent White kids, and Carl's room was a completely integrated room. It was almost the only activity that happened at Central High School that was genuinely integrated with Black kids and White kids; sports were all Black kids. And Carl had just started teaching; actually, his mother was a long-time English teacher at Central High School. And he—the year I arrived, which would have been ’73—he had just begun teaching there, and the enthusiasm he had … Here’s something I remember completely: we did a scene-study class, a semester-long scene-study class, and then when we got to the end, to the grading part of the class … He sat out in the hall, sent us in to do our scenes in front of our classmates. Then we came out and we gave ourselves a grade for how well we did! My little mind was blown! But what was so beautiful about that is that it totally did what it was supposed to do: it put the focus on me thinking about What do I think about how well I'm doing?
[VO]: I might have mentioned earlier that the 6 train of the New York subway runs right beneath the Public Theater. (I’ve tried my best to limit the rumbling in post-production.) Also, I want to underscore the impact of this drama teacher, Carl Shutts, who asked students for input about their learning. What Oskar was just talking about, having students assess themselves—it can go wrong, of course; like any strategy or policy or plan, how you do it, your implementation counts for 90%. But here's a case where it went very right: Carl Shutts got Oskar thinking critically about what he was doing in this theater class. A few years later, Oskar began a career helping others think critically about the plays they were writing, and acting in, and producing. (Yeah, teachers!) Mr. Shutts was also, I was surprised to learn, responsible for a nudge in this direction.
OSKAR: He was a great influence on me. He got me my first job!
PETER: He did?
OSKAR: There was a program, which you're too young to remember, Peter. It was called the CETA program, Comprehensive Education and Training Act.
[VO]: CETA was an extension of [FDR’s] Works Progress Administration (WPA) from the ‘30s, signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, when I was -2.
OSKAR: What it was doing was it gave federal grants to nonprofits who could then turn around and use those grants to put young people, teenagers, on salary as a way of interesting them in a life in the nonprofit sphere. It went to all kinds of nonprofits; it was a great program. Carl heard that there was a settlement house, [now called Pillsbury House + Theatre] that had a children's theatre program that gotten a CETA grant and could hire a teenager to come work with them. I went and I did that. I was making $80 a week in 1974, which was a fortune. I fell in love with the theatre … and CETA did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was take, you know, an ambitious and talented young man who didn't know where he belonged, and it introduced him to the nonprofit theater. And by god, that's what I've been doing for the last 45 years!
PETER: Most English Language Arts curricula for middle and high school students include plays, often Shakespeare, Ibsen, and one or two Greeks. Not always, but usually these works are approached more or less as written texts. There’s often a wide chasm between drama as literature and drama as performance. What do you think about this approach?
OSKAR: You know, we've been through this a lot in our various incarnations, Peter. If you don't get those words in your mouth … if you don't stand up and start embodying those plays, you don't know what the work of art of a play is! What's on the page, it's like studying the score of a symphony and saying you understand the symphony. That's just the score for the event which is between people—two people, five people, 18 people in the case of Shakespeare—embodying, people interacting with each other. That's the art form itself. The written piece is just the notation for the art form. So, in addition to being true, this [concept] is also tremendously useful in terms of engaging people, and engaging young people in particular. You start to realize that the theatre, and the art of the theatre, is a full three-dimensional, embodied reality. It's not a literary and intellectual reality.
PETER: It struck me when you were in conversation with Paula Zahn [NYC-Arts 12/6/12], you called Shakespeare “the most accessible writer in the history of the English language.” But you followed that up with immediately with “Everyone who sees his plays … .” You know, “seeing them, they fall in love immediately.” So there is that caveat.
OSKAR: I've had the experience over and over: We take Shakespeare into prisons. We take Shakespeare into homeless shelters. We put Shakespeare in front of the people who not only haven't seen Shakespeare, they've never seen a play in their lives. And what I watch—because very often the people come in with trepidation and anxiety. You know, prison audiences are literally captive audiences, and they are not necessarily there because they want to be at your performance. And I watch. I watch them, watch and realize that after about five minutes they are understanding. And it's not just that they're understanding, they are interested and they start to care, and then there's this whole second reaction of them realizing themselves, “Oh my god, I understand Shakespeare!” And there's this elevation that comes from that. There was this thing that has always sounded like inaccessible and high culture: “It's not for you!” Well, it is for me too! I can get it! And I think it's a tremendously uplifting thing when people understand that Shakespeare is for them.
PETER: The precursor to opening the Public was a Shakespeare project, right? Wasn't that the original thing that Joe Papp did?
OSKAR: What started out in 1954 was the New York Shakespeare Workshop, which the next year became the New York Shakespeare Festival (which, legally, we still are). Joe put Shakespeare on the back of flatbed trucks and parked it in parks and parking lots and housing projects around the five boroughs. And it was a huge success from the moment he started. One of the things that I am so astounded by: He started in 1954. He was doing it as a volunteer job while he worked as a stage manager for CBS television. Eight years later, the City of New York built the Delacorte Theatre for him! In that fast a span, he had turned the Shakespeare Festival into an institution that the City of New York was never going to let go!
PETER: Given limited class time, how best to give students a taste of drama as performance?
OSKAR: Well, the simplest thing is to have the kids act it out. And don't worry about big, long sections of the play, because some of the words are difficult, and what they mean is difficult too. Instead, take some hot sections of the plays. Take the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet, take the forum scene from Julius Caesar and then talk to the kids. Help them understand what the words mean, help them understand how to pronounce it, but talk to them in acting terms. Talk to them about what Marc Antony is trying to do, and let them compete about who can rile up the class the best, who is the most convincing orator, who understands what the action is … and then let them suit the word to the action! Let them use the language to try to do what the character is trying to do, and that's the magic key, and suddenly you start understanding. If we think about it—I've spent my life doing Shakespeare. There are many words I don't understand. There are many sentences that I can't be sure of exactly what it means, but if I know what the character is trying to do, it doesn't matter. I don't care because I'm following what he or she is after. And that's the thing that to me. If you can unlock that in the kids, then they can have a sense of mastery of Shakespeare that I think is empowering.
PETER: Is there a play (or two or three) that you would like to see more students read, given that some works don't necessarily come to life as easily as others?
OSKAR: Oh Peter, I don't know. Because remember, I'm not an educator. I'm certainly not a K-12 educator. So, the plays that I suspect exist in most of the curriculum are Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet, and “the Scottish play”—
[VO]:—also known as Macbeth, but that’s bad luck to pronounce if you’re in a theater—
OSKAR: and those aren't bad examples. Those are each plays that either don't have subplots or where the subplots are minimal; where the characters are very big and boldly written. Julius Caesar is about politics and assassination, Romeo & Juliet is about young love, and the Scottish play is a tragedy of ambition. They're easy to understand the feelings behind them. I don't know … I mean, [A Midsummer Night’s Dream] is actually—it's a beautiful play, but it's actually weirdly complicated. I don't know how kids respond to Midsummer. As You Like It is my favorite play. It's, I think, pure genius, but it's also very sophisticated; you know, what exactly Rosalind is doing with Orlando is not a simple thing. She's pretending to be a boy trying to teach him how to love a woman. So, of course, what she's doing on some level is she's teaching him how to be a husband before she’ll accept him as a husband, and that's a beautiful thing, but it's a relatively grown-up thing. So I don't know …
PETER: In my high school English classroom, I was interested, among other things, in asking my students to think about their role as citizens. Toward this end, I used different drama process strategies over the years, asking students in different ways to imagine and embody some other person from some other group with some other perspective. The relationship between drama and being a citizen or playing a role in a democracy was not always obvious to me. In fact, even as someone who studied ancient Greek literature and history in college, I had not spent much time thinking about this connection before taking your class. Can you recap the fundamental relationship between Western ideas of drama and democracy, born at the same moment in Greece 2500 years ago?
OSKAR: And of course, this is where my disclaimer that I'm not an academic really comes into force, because I'm telling you a story. A story that's based on historical truth, but I'm not claiming historical accuracy. I'm claiming that it's telling a truth based on the fact that democracy and drama were invented in the same city in the same decade—literally, the same decade. Somebody had the idea in Athens that power should flow from below to above, not the other way around; that people should be ruled by the consent of the governed, not by power or force. That is an unbelievably radical idea, which we've been unpacking for 2500 years since. And of course, Athenian democracy was incredibly limited: it was limited to men, it was limited to landowners, and it was a slave society. I'm not holding out Athens as a model of the perfect democracy, but nonetheless, that idea that power flows from below was instituted there. In the same decade, in the festival of Dionysius, a storyteller stopped telling the story directly to the audience. He turned to the left and started talking to another person on stage, and the idea of dialogue was born. Suddenly, it’s not a story that's being told to you, it’s a story that's being acted in front of you by characters. And my contention is that everything changes at that moment, and partly what changes is the notion of truth. When I'm the storyteller telling the story to you, I am the unitary authority. I am the one who possesses the truth. I'm telling it to you. If I turn and talk to another character on stage who then answers me back, and their answer has to dispute me (because drama is conflict), so then you have two points of view on stage, conflicting with each other—and of course, in the early Greek plays, literally only two points, two characters—but as soon as you do that, you’re saying the nature of truth is to be found in the conflict between different points of view. It's not somebody's possession. It's in the interaction with somebody else that you find out what the truth is, and if you don't believe that you don't really believe in democracy. If you don't believe that, then you're an autocrat who is willing to put up with democracy until you can impose your ideas on everybody else. If you are really a democrat, you actually believe that's how truth is discovered, in the struggle between different points of view. And of course, it's changing what it’s asking an audience to do, because instead of asking you to sit back and listen to my truth that I'm dispensing to you and you're either agreeing with or just absorbing without even thinking about whether you agree with it; or if you're disputing it, you’re just disputing in the privacy of your mind. I'm asking you to lean forward and identify with me as a character and what I want, and then the other character starts to talk and I'm asking you to identify with them and what they want. I'm not asking you to accept the truth. I'm asking you to imagine it from somebody else's point of view. Imagine what that truth feels like to Xerxes, what that truth feels like to Oedipus. And by doing that, we're exercising the muscle of empathy, we’re exercising something that is a key tool of citizenship, which is the ability to imagine somebody else's point of view and to understand that their point of view has validity and that it's in the clash and contrast of given points of view that the truth is going to emerge. Those two things—the idea that truth is dialectical, and the idea that empathy is a core human act—to me, they lie at the basis of theater and they're also the things you have to believe if you're going to believe in democracy. They are the skills you have to practice if you're going to be a democratic citizen.
PETER: I want to double click and just follow up on that empathy issue because—I think I mentioned to you I was able to study with Augusto Boal the year before he passed away, so it really was a fortunate experience on several levels—
[VO]: Boal was the Brazilian director, writer, and luminary who developed the radical form known as the Theater of the Oppressed. Boal was influenced by the German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, whom we discuss in a second.
PETER: I was struck that empathy can go a couple of different ways: that it can be a force that could be radical or engender some kind of radical understanding or action, but then again it could also manipulate, coerce …
OSKAR: Well, Brecht and Boal were both fighting the same thing, which I would call, after [Marxist thinker Antonio] Gramsci, capitalist hegemony. The problem with empathy in a society, in a capitalist society, and maybe it was true in feudal society too, I can't tell, is that empathy can simply reinforce the notion that the way things are structured is natural. That human motivation is a biological, natural, unchangeable fact, that human nature is the way things are. Which is of course all the way of saying that private property is just the way God made it! God just made it that I own the factory and 500 people are working in the factory and I take all the money that the factory makes, and these guys make a pittance. That's just the way it is! That's just nature! And what Brecht—all of Brecht’s techniques to try and disrupt simple empathy were designed to try and interrupt the idea that the world is unchangeable, that the world is composed of forces, and your only recourse is to understand and accept them. His idea was that actually, the world is changeable; that capitalism deliberately disguises itself as nature, just as the Divine Right of Kings disguised itself as something eternal. And then, in order to have a revolution, it's necessary to empower people to realize that they can change things that look unchangeable, things that look like they're objects are actually relationships between people and that you can change the nature of those relationships. Brecht claimed for many, many years that his theatre was anti-empathy, and it's just not true. What he was interested in was problematizing empathy, viewing empathy as one of the things that was necessary, but another thing that he claimed was necessary—and he's right, I think—is the ability to critically reflect on what you or anybody else is doing. For me, the best example of this is Mother Courage—
[VO]: Mother Courage and Her Children, a Brecht play set during the Thirty Years’ War, revolves around a woman who relies on selling merchandise during wartime for her personal survival. One by one her three children die, yet she continues her profiteering.
OSKAR: Watch Mother Courage, and there's absolutely no question that he's asking you to care about Mother Courage and her kids. He's not asking you not to care. You absolutely are supposed to care about them. He wants you to care, and you do care, in any good production. But at the same time, you don't accept everything she does as a given. What he wants to do is look at the choices she's making and look at the consequences of those choices, and by the end what he's done is I think very radical, dramatically. He said that the moment of realization or illumination where we realize the truth of what has been under this doesn't happen on stage. Mother Courage never figures out what she's done. It happens in the audience. We are the ones who realize, O my god! Mother Courage set out to defend her family at all costs and what she achieved was the death of all of her children. And she did that because she was trying to define her universe, moral universe so narrowly that she couldn't actually have any impact on it. “I'm only going to care about my family.” Because she didn't care about the war, because she didn't care about the broader society, she actually was completely unable to protect her family. And we in the audience of a good production of Mother Courage will recognize that, even if the character doesn’t.
PETER: You've spoken about theatre as a place, especially US theatre, as a place where various groups of Americans lay claim to citizenship. What do you mean by that?
OSKAR: There’s terms that we use in the theater that are used casually and anecdotally by the public as a whole, “to put somebody center stage,” “to put someone in the spotlight.” Those are theater terms, but when we say it in our common life, what we mean is to make somebody the center of attention to legitimize and even prioritize their experience to allow them to be the subjects of their own life, the stars of their own life, not the supporting characters for somebody else's life. The stage can do that, quite literally. We hardly remember it now, but one of the things that [Eugene] O’Neill was doing was taking the Irish American experience and putting it center stage and saying, “This is actually the quintessential American experience.” [Clifford] Odets and later [Arthur] Miller, were taking the Jewish American experience and saying, “This is actually America. You can see it.” August Wilson was taking the African American experience. In each of these, you see that by being protagonists of plays, people are able to step in front and say, “My story is actually a central story of our culture. I am not a subsidiary character. I'm not the object of history; I am the subject of it.” The theater is tremendously good at that and tremendously powerful, authentic because of course, the theater always involves bringing a large group of people together to act and to watch. And you're actually doing that in relationship to real people. You're not on a screen somewhere. You're actually standing up, center stage, in the spotlight, in front of everybody, saying, “This is my point of view.” My favorite writing about this was Alfred Kazin, the great critic wrote in Starting Out in the Thirties about what it was like seeing Odets' plays at the Belasco.
PETER: This is Clifford Odets.
OSCAR: Clifford Odets, great, great writer of the Depression. He wrote Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty. He wrote Paradise Lost. And Alfred could only afford the very cheapest seats which were like a quarter, on the second balcony at the Belasco, which was a long way from the stage. But he said, “I would sit there and watch my aunt and my uncle and myself onstage with as much right as if they were Hamlet or Lear. And I believed that there was a place for me in America.” And it's a beautiful passage, and that idea that you and somebody who represents your experience has as much right as Hamlet to be on the stage, it's a beautiful way of articulating that notion that we have to be able to imagine ourselves as the center of our stories, if we're going to be able to empower ourselves to make a difference in the world.
PETER: To slide from Hamlet to Hamilton, this is quite literally part of the project. Of course, I should say that you produced the original production of Hamilton, which was staged right here where we are at the Public Theater. This radical casting choice, which I guess wasn't just casting, it’s baked into the design of the play that everybody should be non-white, or almost everybody except for George III, for a foundational story of Americanness.
OSKAR: There's no question. The core idea behind Hamilton is to tell the story of the founding of America through the eyes of the only founding father who was a bastard immigrant orphan from the West Indies, and by doing that, claim America for every (metaphorical) bastard immigrant orphan from the West Indies or anywhere else in the world, to say that at the very founding immigrants were there, at the very founding people from the West Indies were there, at the very founding people who had no money, who had no education, who had no privilege in life were there founding the country.Aand that's the principle that's both there in the text of the show and the music of the show, and was there in the casting of the show. So there's a unity among all of those things—just as the language of the show is hip-hop and rap, and Broadway musical theater and pop songs. I mean there's a wide variety, but it's saying that we're gonna tell the story in the language of the streets, not just about the bastard immigrant orphan from the West Indies. We are going to tell this story in the language of street culture, and then we're going to cast it with Black, Brown, Asian, Latino peoples! So that there's a moment in the very first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” which is incredibly striking. On the one hand, the whole cast is just singing the story of how Alexander Hamilton came from the West Indies to New York, but on the other hand, there's a moment where that cast as a whole all just walks downstage and stands in a line across the front, and physically, at that moment, this cast of Black and Brown people are claiming America's founding for themselves, and it's just really thrilling watching it. It was astonishing to me. We just opened in London in December and to my absolute shock, it works the same way Britain. When that cast comes on—and it's all British people of color, all of the actors are British and they're all, you know, the former colonies, black, yellow, brown, and when they do, you can feel the same energy in England that the audience is like, “Oh, this is our country now. This is what Britain is. It's not what we imagined from G.K. Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle. This incredibly diverse, multicultural cast is a representation of our country too.” It’s palpable in a way that is a lot different than what happens in politics or political speeches.
PETER: What do you know about some of the ways that Hamilton is being used in school? I was observing an English class a couple months ago when they were studying it, but I imagine this would be one of the great plays to do in history or social studies classes as well.
OSKAR: Well, we have a program that I'm very proud of called EduHam—
OSKAR: E-d-u-Ham. It’s the way young people are talking these days.
[VO]: Why didn't I think of this last spring when I was trying to come up with names for my education podcast?
OSKAR: What it is: in every one of the big cities where we are, in New York, in London, in Chicago and in Los Angeles, we bring 20,000 Title I [low-income] school kids to the theater for like 10 bucks, usually paid for by the schools every year, and there's a curriculum that goes out before then that teaches about Hamilton, but also basically encourages everybody to make up their own performance piece about American history. And on the day these kids come to the theater, they come in the morning and they perform those pieces on the stage and then they sit and watch it. And it's just fantastic. The thing that we need to do, and I am in very lively discussion with my producing partners about this, I think the thing we need to do is release the rights for high schools to perform. Normally, you release the rights to high schools about 10 years after the show has closed on Broadway. My contention is “Let’s release them right now, so that for the next 10, 20 years, the only way somebody sees Hamilton is they see one of our shows or they see a high school production, and that's the only Hamilton you can see.” I think that would do nothing but drive more people to see Hamilton at the professional level, and what it would do to those theater departments in those urban schools, what it would do to the way that history departments and theater departments could collaborate. It would be a huge gift to the nation, so I'm hoping to win that argument!
PETER: Just for my clarification, it's not just after the show closes … if it runs again, usually you wouldn't be able to mount a production of any kind within 75 miles or something?
OSKAR: Yeah, there's various exclusions zones, but 75 miles is the standard one for a professional production.
PETER: So is this was this kind of maneuver fairly unprecedented?
OSKAR: Oh, completely unprecedented! It never would have been done before. But Peter, my claim—and you know, my credentials for making this claim may be a bit skinny [laughs], but my claim is that it’s good business. My claim is that letting high schools do it would not satiate people's desire to see our professional productions. Rather, it would just increase it and encourage it, while also doing a massive amount of good in the world.
PETER: What it would do to those kids. I mean—
OSKAR: Let me talk in a very sort of narrow professional sense. It would make in high schools across the country, the theater department the cool place to be. And what a change that be! To be saying to young teenagers of color, to urban teenagers, “You know what? Yes, there's hip-hop. Yes, there's music. Yes, but you know what? There also is theater!” I think it would just be a huge boon for our profession, to bring talent like that into our shabby little field.
PETER: When I go into schools these days, the work I most like to support is efforts to promote civil discourse, to model ways to engage in difficult, respectful conversations with people who disagree with us. It’s critical for schools to do this, because unless you’re getting it around the dinner table—which few of us are these days—you’re probably not going to learn how to have a meaningful conversation about something that is hard to talk about, and about which reasonable people disagree. Ignore these skills long enough, and you get, well, Congress, not to put too fine a point on it. One of the reasons we have so few public models for civil discourse, I like to joke, is that it makes lousy television. Screaming and throwing chairs, maybe, that’s exciting. But taking time to slow down in a conversation, to pause and think, maybe even risk changing your mind—who wants to watch that? However! it seems to me that one of the things the Public Theater has done for over half a century, and that you personally are very committed to, is using theatre to spark a broader public conversation about matters of shared concern. What are some of the ways you’ve done this recently?
OSKAR: I think the most important project that we're undertaking right now is a national tour of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat—
PETER: Set in Reading, Pennsylvania?
OSKAR: It was built out of Lynn’s experiences in Reading, Pennsylvania, spending years getting to know the people there and getting to know the effects on that community of the de-industrialization of the city. Because of NAFTA, the last remnants of the steel industry left Reading and went to Mexico, and this town that had been built on steel and industry for over a century decayed from within, and she wrote this brilliant play about that which won the Pulitzer. [In NYC] it opened here. We took it to Broadway and now what we're going to do is next fall, we're taking it to 35 rural counties in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. And the unofficial limitation has been that we are only taking it to “red” counties; we’re only going to take it to counties that voted for Trump. We have found partners in community centers or churches or union halls. So, in each of those communities that we will be presenting it in partnership with a community-based organization. The entire goal is really two-fold. First of all is to say to those folks in “red” America, “We're here for you too. We are not here only to speak to people who already agree with us.” The culture in this country belongs to everyone, and that includes people who disagree with even the idea that the culture should belong. And second, to try and spark a dialogue in exactly the way you're talking about by saying, “You may not agree with our ideas, but let's show you a story about a community that may have some similarity with yours, and then let's talk to each other and figure out where we see alike, where we don't see alike—find a way to give voice to those people as well.” It's a huge experiment for us. We've never done anything like this, but I'm really excited about it. And then the dialogue is about: How do we reach the most people? How do we create a dialogue with most people? How do we have follow-through so that their voices get heard? What kind of advance do we need? So we're working on all of that with the spirit of “Of course we don't know how to do this because it's a new thing,” so we're going to figure out what. There’s going to be a lot we learn from this year, a lot. And then we're going to try and come back every year after that. I think it’s important to say—Peter, the genesis of this was right after the election of 2016, when I was in so much shock as everybody else. I looked at the electoral map of the United States, and I said, you know, if you gave me this map and said, Look, this is mapping where the nonprofit cultural organizations are, the blue is where the nonprofit cultural organizations are, and the red is where there are none, I would have believed you. It's almost that accurate a map, and then I realized that we often act as if those people in “red” America have turned their backs on us. We turned our back on them a long time ago.
PETER: How do you mean?
OSKAR: The culture, the nonprofit cultural sphere, which is my sphere, where I've spent my life, has said to itself—passively; it hasn’t acknowledged it—that we're not for them, we’re not for those farmers in Wisconsin and we're not for those ex-steel workers in rural Pennsylvania. They don't want us. We're not going to talk to them. We're going to talk to the people who like us!
PETER: So, Red Wing, Minnesota?
OSKAR: Red Wing, Minnesota is red. We have never done theater in Red Wing, Minnesota. I named a New York theater after Red Wing, Minnesota, but I've never actually performed in Red Wing, Minnesota and we have to change that. That’s one of the ways that I feel like my sector of society has contributed to this lack of civic discourse. We essentially have said, We're only going to speak to the people who proved they want us, by funding our theaters and building our buildings and buying subscriptions. Those people we’ll speak to, but all the rest of America that doesn't know they want us, doesn't cross their mind that the theater could be exciting for them— We reach out to them and say, No, we're here for you too! [As part of this tour] we're going to try a lot of things. The thing that I'm most excited about is—we're just putting the sort of first flesh on the bones of an idea of where—Sweat is about people losing their jobs and we're going to try and generate workshops that produce writing from people in these communities about their relationship to their job, about what their job means to them what losing their job means if they've lost it, but actually trying to get people to write, and then the actors in the company will perform those pieces as part of the residency in that city. They'll do Sweat, but they'll also perform these people back to them. And if we can do this right, what I'm hoping is that we can basically set up a series of regional competitions, and in the states—in each town that we go to, the people would choose which of these statements best represents their town. They would send them into us, and then we'd have a night at the Delacorte in Central Park in which we get our best and brightest to perform those. I think that would be amazing,
[VO]: And so the great work of Oskar Eustis and the Public Theater continues. Thanks to him for taking the time to talk, to the phenomenal Gil Scott Chapman for his piano playing on this episode, and to you for listening, subscribing, rating, and spreading the word about Point of Learning to everyone you know interested in what and how and why we learn. Co-producer credits for this episode belong to Paula Roy, who wrote me back with 11 potential questions within an hour of my telling her I booked this interview, and to Robyn Lee Horn, whose vast knowledge of theatre feeds my brain whenever I’m wise enough to ask. Back soon with a special edition for National Poetry Month! I think you’re gonna love it!
OSKAR: I have to say, Peter, the very first time you were in class with me, you sent me a very polite note correcting my use of the word peripeteia and saying, “I think you meant anagnorisis,” and I had to say, “Not only do I think you're right, but I can't even be sure of it …”
PETER: I do not recall.
OSKAR: It was a good moment.