May 13, 2020

McCarter Presents Emily Mann “In Conversation with Oskar Eustis”; Artistic Directors Discuss Past Collaboration, Future of Live Theater

MCCARTER@HOME: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between Emily Mann, its outgoing artistic director and resident playwright, and Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater. (Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Eustis photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Public Theater)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre presented “McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Oskar Eustis” on May 8. The discussion was part of the theatre’s ongoing McCarter@Home series of livestreamed events. McCarter’s artistic engagement manager, Paula T. Alekson, curated the conversation. The event was hosted via Zoom, as well as McCarter’s Facebook page.

Eustis became artistic director of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company in 1986, following his position there as resident director and dramaturg. He became artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles) in 1989, followed by Trinity Repertory Company (Providence, Rhode Island) in 1994. He has been artistic director of The Public Theater in New York City since 2005. His association with Emily Mann predates her 30-year tenure as McCarter’s artistic director and resident playwright.

Their first collaboration was a production of Mann’s Obie Award-winning play Still Life. Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, Eustis recalls that Still Life — the result of Mann’s interviews with three people whose lives have been affected by the Vietnam War — was “one of the most brilliant and piercing things I’d read. I was about 21 years old. This was before I’d met Emily; I just knew she’d written this brilliant play, and somehow we’d get the rights to do it.”

“That’s how I got to meet Oskar,” says Mann. “I remember Oskar calling with Tony Taccone [the Eureka’s artistic director at the time]. We had what ended up being, for me, a life-changing conversation. I had never talked to a pair of directors, or a dramaturg [Eustis], who understood the play on such a deep level. So I got on an airplane, and I went out to San Francisco — and the rest is history. We became fast friends.”

Subsequently the Eureka commissioned Mann to write Execution of Justice. In Testimonies, Mann’s anthology of four docudramas, Execution of Justice is dedicated to Eustis. The play — which would premiere on Broadway in 1986 — examines the trial of Dan White, who in 1978 assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and City Supervisor Harvey Milk.

“I found the story shocking and beautiful, because it clearly was an unhealed wound in [San Francisco] in 1981,” Mann says. When White “got a slap on the wrist for what seemed like two premeditated murders in the first degree, the city erupted in riot. The shock of the verdict was something that rocked the city.”

Eustis recalls that the audience “was literally shouting at the stage! I had never … had the experience of theater that was actually a civic event. [Mann] had unleashed the real power of the theater.”

The Function of an Artistic Director

Alekson asked both Mann and Eustis to delineate the “job description” of an artistic director.

“I believe in artists running institutions; there needs to be an artistic vision,” Mann asserts. “Oskar’s vision and mine are not very far apart, because we are dedicated to giving voice to the voiceless; we love the classic repertoire … in conversation with new work.”

She adds that an artistic director has to “keep in mind how to keep the artistic community going, and at the same time keep your institution financially solvent.”

“I’m there to define what the purpose of our work is, and to apply it to the individual shows and programs we’re doing,” offers Eustis. Underlining the importance of ensuring that each production is consistent with the Public’s mission, he adds, “It’s my job to make sure that not only the institution, but the mission that the institution upholds, becomes a permanent part of the New York landscape.”

Live Theater in the Wake of COVID-19

Asked about the lasting implications of COVID-19 for live theater, Mann says, “We are the industry that will probably be the last to reopen in a recognizable way. We have to be in close proximity with each other to create the work, and to share the work. What is theater? It is live.”

She echoes an optimistic comment she made during her remarks at McCarter’s recent online tribute to her: historically theaters have reopened following plagues.

But Mann is sober about the many questions that will have to be considered. “Will people have the money to go to the theater?” she asks rhetorically. “When will we know that we have either a vaccine or a medication that will give us some expectation that we are not risking our lives to go to the theater? All these questions are brewing.”

“I think that when we come out of this, we’re going to be looking at making theater in different ways,” she continues. “I don’t think we all know in what ways yet, but we are going to have to be doing it more frugally. We may see how the electronic revolution we’re dealing with right now impacts the way we work. But one of the good things that may come out of it is that we’re going to have to strip down to the essentials, and the essence, of what theater is all about.”

Eustis agrees, adding, “We have to be very clear about why we’re necessary. There’s going to be a huge demand on us to prove that we are an important part of the recovery from this, because the demand for resources is going to be everywhere.”

Although Eustis initially was unenthusiastic about turning The Public into a “digital company,” recently the theater livestreamed a new play by Richard Nelson, What Do We Need to Talk About? Conversations on Zoom. Eustis reports that the production reached “50,000 views, from 30 countries.”

For Eustis the lesson is “We have to take advantage of all of the obstacles that are given to us. We take advantage of them by figuring out, ‘what we can learn from them? How can we produce within them?’”

Mann adds, “When you spend all day on Zoom meetings, boy do you want to have a live connection! People are going to flock back to a live event … when we can do it safely.”