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Public Theater Glows With $40 Million Makeover: Interview

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Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

Oskar Eustis in mufti outside of the Public Theater. The theater's artistic director led a successful $40 million capital campaign to restore the public space.

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Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

Oskar Eustis in mufti outside of the Public Theater. The theater's artistic director led a successful $40 million capital campaign to restore the public space. Close

Oskar Eustis in mufti outside of the Public Theater. The theater's artistic director led a successful $40 million... Read More

Source: Public Theater via Bloomberg

The Public Theater artistic director Oscar Eustis. Close

The Public Theater artistic director Oscar Eustis.

Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

An outdoor view of the Public Theater on Lafayette Street. Close

An outdoor view of the Public Theater on Lafayette Street.

Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

The new stairs leading into the lobby of the Public Theater. Close

The new stairs leading into the lobby of the Public Theater.

Photographer: Kevin Yatarola/Public Theater via Bloomberg

Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. The renovated area is accessible directly from the Public Theater lobby instead of a side entrance. Close

Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. The renovated area is accessible directly from the Public Theater lobby instead of a side entrance.

Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

A view of the street through the restored arched doors at the Public Theater. Close

A view of the street through the restored arched doors at the Public Theater.

Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

The chandelier (still wrapped) by artist Ben Rubin at the Public Theater. The blades contain LED screens for constantly changing snippets from Shakespeare's plays. Close

The chandelier (still wrapped) by artist Ben Rubin at the Public Theater. The blades contain LED screens for... Read More

Photographer: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg

The new bar at the Public Theater, with its logo embossed on the front. The box office can be seen in the back. Close

The new bar at the Public Theater, with its logo embossed on the front. The box office can be seen in the back.

Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

No lines! The new and much larger ladies room at the Public Theater. Close

No lines! The new and much larger ladies room at the Public Theater.

Today when the doors open on the spectacularly transformed Public Theater in downtown New York, Oskar Eustis can take a place in the spotlight.

In this slash and discard economy, Eustis, 54, has overseen a subtle, $40 million renovation of the theater’s grim public spaces, most dramatically the lobby and Joe’s Pub.

That’s named after Joe Papp, who turned an abandoned 19th- century relic into the country’s most important theater complex.

Over the last seven years Eustis -- who resembles a modern dress Wotan (or stylish Amish farmer) in his signature dark, double-breasted blazers over band-collar shirts -- has burnished the history, making this landmarked building in New York’s East Village a magnet for hipsters and cultural cognoscenti.

We met last week on Lafayette Street outside the Public, as workers prepared for today’s opening.

Hoelterhoff: Great steps.

Eustis: They’re already serving like a fantastic gathering spot. The moment we finished, people started sitting on them. That sense of a place to congregate is exactly what we want at the Public.

Hoelterhoff: This is an old building. Any surprises? Challenges?

No Beams

Eustis: You had no idea what you were going to find when you opened up the walls. There are no architectural drawings left from the 1850s. Where we thought there were beams, there were none. It’s a miracle that this building hasn’t collapsed.

Hoelterhoff: The glass canopy is a handsome addition.

Eustis: If you’ve ever been to the Public on an inclement night, you will know the necessity of this. You’ll be able to stand under here and then move into a central lobby.

Hoelterhoff: Wow. The inside looks much bigger. How did that happen?

Eustis: By restoring these doors to their full height, we got both the visibility into the lobby and slightly more majestic sense of presence.

Hoelterhoff: What’s under the drape up there?

Eustis: Once those drapes come off, it will be magic. This is the Shakespeare Machine by Ben Rubin. Each of those 37 blades is dedicated to one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. The entire text of that play is inscribed on each of these blades.

They will, with a series of complicated algorithms, play the text of Shakespeare’s plays. He’s got one algorithm, for example, where every sentence that begins with O in the canon comes out.

High Bar

Hoelterhoff: Could that be a bar?

Eustis: This is a bar, which will have food and beverage service from 10 every morning till 1 the next morning. So it’s part of the idea to make a central gathering place for eating and drinking in the lobby, not just when you come to see a show.

Hoelterhoff: Looking up, I see there’s another surprise, a new mezzanine.

Eustis: This is a new floor which serves as a dual function. First of all, you’ll be able to cross through the building in a way you never could before.

It also serves a social gathering function because, as you will have noticed, it’s a wonderful feeling in the theater to lean over and look at the audience gathering below. This theater didn’t use to acknowledge that the audience comes here to be part of an audience, not just to see what’s in the building.

New Boundaries

Hoelterhoff: You’re wearing a t-shirt that says “stretch your boundaries.” Is that a model for you?

Eustis: Absolutely. I have often linked the health of the American theater to the health of American democracy because I think they’re intimately connected.

Every period of great theatrical explosion and creativity has been a period of increased democratic enfranchisement. That’s what the theater feeds off of -- just as I believe there is a penumbra in the Bill of Rights that leads to an ever- expanding sense of who is entitled to have their story told.

That’s what the theater should be doing. It should be constantly expanding not only who gets to be in the audience, but who gets to tell their story.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

To contact the writer of this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Burke in New York at jburke21@bloomberg.net.

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