Public Theater Glows With $40 Million Makeover: Interview

Oskar Eustis
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. Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

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.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE