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Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, gives a talk titled “Theater and Democracy” during a visit April 24 sponsored by the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity.

Public Theater director: ‘Use theater to cross boundaries’

Oskar Eustis believes theater can help people learn what it’s like to be a citizen in a true democracy – where people have conflicts, try to understand each other, compromise, empathize and come up with solutions.

Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, which has produced such knockout shows as “Hamilton” and “Fun Home,” was at Cornell April 24 for a visit sponsored by the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity. His talk, “Theater and Democracy,” was held in the Kiplinger Theatre at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

“Drama involves conflict and I believe that truth can be found in conflict, in the interchange of different points of view, in colliding with opposite opinions,” said Eustis, one of the founding advisory board members for the Milstein Program. “That’s a belief you have to have if you believe in democracy.”

During his talk, Eustis spoke of the Public Theater’s history and its numerous outreach projects, which include creating theater with community members in small rural towns – often conservative places that liberal artists have typically ignored.

“We’ve created silos where we are getting variations on what we believe repeated back to us over and over and over,” he said. “Theater asks you to exercise your muscle of empathy and embrace the idea that you need to see things from an opposing point of view in order to find the truth.”

Giving examples from early Greek theater, Eustis explained that playwrights have often made audiences uncomfortable by asking them to view the situation from the other side. For example, Aeschylus’ play, “The Persians,” forced the Greek audience to see things from the Persian point of view.

“My thesis is that democracy and theater reinforce each other – they’re linked,” he said. “That means that there’s a way we can use theater to cross boundaries, create connections and make unity among us in a way we aren’t now.”

Eustis shared the story of the Public Theater, founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp, who “believed that theater belonged to everybody,” Eustis said. From free Shakespeare in the Park performances to support for groundbreaking works like “Hair,” Papp and the theater built a following that enjoyed performances for free or at low cost.

But eventually that popularity made their works less accessible. Today, patrons sleep overnight in line to get tickets to a Shakespeare in the Park performance – “and who has a job that allows them to sleep out in the park to do that?” Eustis asked.

So the theater has undertaken various outreach efforts to share its work. A mobile unit travels around the city’s five boroughs and into New Jersey, visiting community centers, schools, prisons, halfway houses and other public locations. In 2018, the mobile unit went national, taking the show “Sweat” to 18 stops throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The tour included activities that allowed participants to see the relevance of the story to their lives.

“The desire for this was overwhelming,” Eustis said. “In most of the towns, the mayors insisted on meeting with us to talk about the show. The appetite for discussion was great.”

The Public Works program, which started as a community theater program in the city, now has 10 partners and affiliate programs throughout the country that create participatory theatre productions with community members.

“When the theater works, you walk in as an individual, but when you leave, you have become a part of the community,” Eustis said. “It can help us figure out a way to talk to each other.”

Eustis said he joined the Milstein board because he’s “a little romantic about Cornell.”

“I have a personal history with this place, working with (PMA Professor) David Feldshuh 25 years ago on his play, ‘Miss Evers’ Boys,’ and my old boss, Gordon Davidson (’56), was a Cornell alum,” Eustis said. Davidson was the founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

“I’m a big proselytizer about the importance of the arts, and one thing that’s going wrong with our educational experience is that we’re slighting the arts as if they are ancillary to real knowledge, such as technology, computer programming and other STEM fields,” he said. “In a world that’s increasingly divided, we need institutions where people can collectively consider moral questions. Without that, we are a deeply impoverished people.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Gillian Smith