Tag Archives: Oskar Eustis

From Schenkkan to Shakespeare, the same urgent warning

BUILDING THE WALL prod photo VP 2

Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth in ‘Building the Wall’

By Stephen Sachs

One play was written more than 400 years ago, the other last October. Both written by playwrights worried about the future of their countries. One author took months to pen his work, the other took one week.  One writer has been dead 400 years, one is very much alive, chronicling the current political crisis of his time with a dire new play now playing on our Fountain stage. Both authors and their plays have been in the news in recent weeks, igniting a firestorm of national conversation on the role of theatre to express political outrage, and its fundamental right and responsibility to do so. The Fountain Theatre is a voice in that debate. 

As many know, The Public Theater’s production this month in New York of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar drew fire from Right-Wing Conservatives for its depiction of the ruler as a petulant Trump-like politician with blondish hair and a sullen Slavic wife.  Outrage from Conservatives targeted the play’s depiction of Caesar’s assassination, missing the larger meaning of the play, as if director Oskar Eustis was advocating the killing of the current president. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship. Right-Wing groups hired demonstrators to picket the venue and harass theatergoers. Protesters heckled the live performances and wildly stormed the stage to stop the play mid-show. The demonstrators’ feeble attempts may have halted a performance momentarily but, in each instance, the show went on. If anything, it drew national focus to the very thing it schemed to suppress. Art cannot be stopped.

Most discouraging to me, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that hails itself as providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation, distanced itself from the production by releasing a statement declaring that NEA funds were not used to support this staging of Julius Caesar. An ironic stance for a federal arts agency whose very existence Trump has vowed to destroy.

Julius CaesarBy William Shakespeare Directed by Oskar Eustis Featuring Tina Benko (Calpurnia); Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Gregg Henry (Caesar); Edward James Hyland (Lep

‘Julius Caesar’ at The Public Theater, NY

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Fountain Theatre has been running our sold-out world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall. It is a riveting drama set in the near future exposing the vulnerability of one man caught up in the horrific unraveling of Trump’s anti-immigration policies.  Robert and I knew the play would generate some interest from the press. Neither of us anticipated the avalanche that has ensued. We’ve been bombarded by interview requests from everywhere. The play and the Fountain production were featured in national news outlets across the country, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. Plus international coverage in the UK and France. “Theatre in the Age of Trump” is now suddenly a hot topic.

untitledThe Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the Fountain Theatre’s production of Building the Wall coincided this month.  Newspapers on both coasts featured stories on both productions, with Oskar Eustis and Robert Schenkkan speaking out boldly for not only the right, but the necessity of freedom of speech and unrestricted artistic expression in this country.  The subject of ‘The Politics of Theater’ became a significant Arts cover feature in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.     

The Right-Wing protesters who stormed the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park no doubt never read Julius Caesar and certainly knew little about it. They focused on the killing of the king, unaware of the greater warning the tale foretells: Beware when you get what you want. A tyrant in power mandated to save the republic can lead to the destruction of the very republic he vows to protect. Shakespeare demands us to recognize that more than a ruler is assassinated in this tragedy. It is democracy itself that is murdered.

Julius Caesar and Breaking the Wall expose the same fatal wound within ourselves. Our susceptibility to become what we hate. Rick’s slow and seamless transformation in Building the Wall, from well-meaning Trump follower to death camp superintendent is so nightmarish and appalling because it seems somehow plausible. This is how Schenkkan and Shakespeare caution us. This dark truth is perfectly crystalized by Shakespeare when Cassius warns, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It is not fate, but weakness of character that forces a person to act against his will.

RS in FT rehearsal March 2017

Playwright Robert Schenkkan in rehearsal, Fountain Theatre

“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Robert Schenkkan has said. Fighting a tyrant does not mean imitating him. Julius Caesar no more advocates the killing of a king than Building the Wall promotes the mass detention and extermination of immigrants. Neither play is about genocide or the murder of a tyrant. Each is about the killing of social and political order, played out in the souls of specific human beings. Building the Wall is a razor-sharp two-character play that takes place in one room. Two people in extreme close up.  

Shakespeare based his play Julius Caesar (some say he stole entire sections of it) from Plutarch’s biography of the ruler. Of his examination Plutarch said, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives.”

Plays, too, are about lives, not ideas. Good plays, plays that matter and live forever, have compelling themes and thought-provoking viewpoints and concepts but they are told through the dramatization of human lives. The power of Building the Wall lies in how it puts a human face on the inhuman. It reveals the dichotomy of opposites alive in one man: the wish to do what is right versus the inability to see, and speak out against, what is wrong.   

For all of us at the Fountain Theatre, Building the Wall is more than a play. It is a defining moment, one of many that help set our compass as a company and as artists. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our service, our responsibility, to the community, to our nation?   

This administration fears artists for the same reason it has banned TV cameras from live press briefings. It is terrified that the American people will see the truth. Our role as theatre artists, like that of a free press, is to be truth-tellers.  And to fight for the freedom to speak it, through art.

I am so proud that the Fountain Theatre took the stand of leadership in launching Robert’s new work, and that it continues to ignite this firestorm of conversation, artistic soul-searching and journalistic examination.  That our world premiere production is not only still running after four sold out months but has been extended through August is a testament to its urgent necessity and the overwhelming will expressed by our audiences to engage. 

When art and politics collide like this on a local and national level, theaters like ours, and the art we create, become indispensable not only to our city, but our nation. 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles.

Nonprofit Theater as Public Service: How Should We Define Profit and Loss?

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

Something profound happened on the first Tuesday in November, something I’m still trying to digest fully. To my mind the election results represent a victory of love over hate, of human dignity over market forces, of public service over private gain. Those who spewed hate toward women weren’t reelected. Those who insisted on heteronormativity as the only way were defeated handily, and those who spouted the rights of the wealthy to buy elections for the sake of perpetuating the private markets of their personal fortunes were sent packing. On that Tuesday, at least for a moment, we redefined public service as something meant to benefit everyone, not just the few.

John Adams

John Adams

John Adams wrote in a letter to his son, “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.” Most of us would agree, though deeply flawed, our Founding Fathers were wise men who created a frame for a political system that in many ways has served us well.

I feel and see more deeply the cost of a commitment to public service. The long view of history reminds me that the $4.2 billion we spent on this last election is recent history. And it also makes me ask: Are too many honest men and women refusing public service, making room for too many politicians driven by ego and the desire for personal gain? And because this is what I do for a living, it makes me think about the history of the regional theater movement—about our leaders, past and present. And I ask: How do we currently as a field define our relationship to public service? We take a tax break, and like churches and libraries, we offer something of value to the public. When we say we choose to make our art in the context of nonprofit theater, we embrace a form of public service—not for the sake of glamorous careers that include arriving in limos to the Tony awards and sipping champagne with the stars. I intentionally chose to work inside nonprofit theater because I had a deep desire to effect change in the world. But somewhere along the historical path of the nonprofit theater movement, public service to artists and a community ran head long into private desires for personal success. Like our political milieu the public good has gotten confused with private desires.

In both editing the report, In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector by Diane Ragsdalejust released by The Center for the Theater Commons, and attending the convening that the report covers, I have a deeper understanding of the movement of history in our field from a purer sense of public service to a market-driven desire to both serve and survive. These historical shifts in mission and purpose aren’t simple, and they don’t happen over night. We didn’t go from John Adams to Mitt Romney without struggles of every kind. But if you are invested in the future of the nonprofit theater movement, I suggest you read this report closely (you can download it for free), because it will place you in the thick of history whose next chapter will be written by the readers of HowlRound, among others.

Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis

The meeting this report covers was, from my vantage point, remarkable. The participants are public servants struggling with increased market pressures—how to make a public good in the face of enormous obstacles. The report covers a historical shift from the very opening conversation between Rocco Landesman and Gregory Mosher, and that shift is more deeply explored in the second chapter in the conversation between Oskar Eustis and Robert Brustein. Eustis frames the very question that the report explores:

What strikes me as you talk Bob is that . . . everything you’re talking about is about being part of a larger history that stems back really to that beach in Provincetown in 1920 through to the present. And you talk about being engaged in the training and the discussion and the creation at all at once so that, in a way, you are creating a world of values that is separate. And that world of values is part of a larger history; but we haven’t talked about profit or commerce in any of this really. And I think that one of the difficult things is: Where do you find an alternative set of values in the world—where you can live inside an alternative set of conversations about “profit and loss”?

Tony Taccone

Tony Taccone

In pondering this question we must consider the history of our own movement. We must consider the values and the words of the founders of this movement like Robert Brustein and Zelda Fichandler who are still around and able to guide us—and not just when it’s to our advantage to do so, but even when that looking back questions our practices in the moment. The group of twenty-six nonprofit theater representatives, commercial producers, and artists that gathered for this conversation did exactly that. And in the looking backwards and forwards, all of us in that room felt perplexed about where the nonprofit theater movement stands now. We asked ourselves how we had gotten from there to here and most of the nonprofit participants, as you will read, were not convinced that here was what our founders meant when they argued that nonprofit status made sense for the theater. In one of the many honest and soul-searching moments in the report, Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep, tries to make sense of how we came to this moment in our history:

And so we’re trying to describe what happened to us. And trying to exercise a little bit of consciousness about where we want to go. Is there a creative progressive place we can go together as a community, as a culture? Because individualism, fame, money, materialism lead one another to an iceberg. But we all kind of need and want those things too; so it’s a really tricky road.

And so I sit here post-election pondering multiple American histories, the histories of presidents, and Constitutions, and theater movements. And I don’t want to argue that things should be as they once were. We don’t look back in order to go back, but rather to better choose what going forward looks like. I’m so grateful for the evolution of thought that has created the possibilities for new stories, not the least of which is my new story as a legally married person. But in this post-election bliss for many of us, it makes sense for us consider why we value public service, and why we’ve chosen a life in the nonprofit theater. Have we done it to succeed on personal terms or do we make art to make the world better?

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound

Theatre: The Gift of Transcendance, Not Transactions

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.  – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.

Money Trumps Love

During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.

From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”

I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.

I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.

Gathering Inspiration

In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.

My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.

Zelda Fichandler

When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:

What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.

The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.

Zelda again:

Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.

Going to Church

In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:

It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.

Harold Clurman in his book, The Fervent Years, about the formation of the Group Theatre puts it in terms of our relationship with our audience:

When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)

Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience. Continue reading