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Famed Stage Producer To Speak In Pittsburgh On Artists Role In Society

Photo by Aislinn Weidele

It might seem merely serendipitous that both democracy as we know it and theater as we know it arose in roughly the same place and time: Athens, Greece, in the late 6th century BCE.

To Oskar Eustis, it’s no coincidence.

Eustis is the longtime artistic director of New York City’s storied Public Theater, where he produced such Tony- and Pulitzer-winning hits as “Hamilton” and the drama “Sweat.” He sees a deep connection between the birth of theater and the rise of democracy as a governing principle. In April, he shared his insights in a widely viewed TED Talk. Monday, he visits Pittsburgh to discuss how artists can make their work matter more.

Staged spectacles predated 6th-century Athens, of course, but Eustis defines “theater” as dialogue between two performers playing characters, a form which is widely thought to have arisen then. Likewise democracy, the idea that ordinary people should have a say in how they are governed.

“That just can’t be a coincidence,” Eustis said in a phone interview. “Whether theater caused democracy or democracy caused theater, they were both manifestations of a similar impulse, and necessary to each other. And that impulse is the belief that nobody possesses the truth. … The only way you can discover truth is to investigate it through the clash of opposing viewpoints. And that’s what dialogue in the theater is.”

Oskar Eustis speaks at the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards, 7 p.m. Mon., Dec. 10. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side

Eustis knows something about democratizing theater: The Public’s venerable Shakespeare in the Park program (founded in 1954) is a national model for bringing free theater to the people.

Eustis speaks here at the ceremony for the annual Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards. He said artists must work harder to improve their communities.

“A lot of what that involves in my mind is … trying to redraw the boundaries between who’s an artist and who’s an audience member in ways that recharge and enliven and hopefully deepen our relationship to the communities that we work in,” he said.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash musical “Hamilton,” about Alexander Hamilton, is a good example of how theater can change minds, he said.

“‘Hamilton is extraordinary, because its basic move is incredibly simple, which is to take seriously that one of our Founding Fathers was a bastard immigrant orphan from the West Indies, and to say, ‘What if we were to take his point of view about the founding of the nation?’” Eustis says. “That means we should tell it through our current versions of bastard immigrant orphans – the people who forcibly or voluntarily have come to this country, try to make a home here, who are overwhelmingly black and brown people, and tell the story not only with those people playing the roles, but also through the medium of the music that they have created – hip hop, rap, R & B.”

“What Lin is doing is just making this very sweeping claim that the founding of our country belongs to us,” Eustis adds. “It doesn’t belong to a bunch of white Virginia slave-owners -- it belongs to us because we get to tell its story. And that’s as close to a game-changing act as I’ve seen in my lifetime in the theater.”

Eustis says this is his first visit to Pittsburgh in decades; he says he used to visit in the 1970s for shows by avant-garde stage troupe the 99 Cent Floating Theatre Festival.

Monday, he will speak here as part of a public discussion on “the role and responsibility of artists in society.” This year’s Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement award-winners are scenic designer Tony Ferrieri (best known for his nearly four decades of work at City Theatre) and multidisciplinary artist Alisha B. Wormsley (whose billboard message “There Are Black People in the Future” was at the center of a controversy in East Liberty this past spring).

The awards are sponsored by the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. The discussion, including an audience Q &A, will be moderated by Heinz Endowments president Grant Oliphant.

The event is free but tickets are required, and seating is limited. For more information, see here.

The Heinz Endowments is an underwriter of WESA.