What Oskar Eustis Has Learned From 30 Years of Friendship With Tony Kushner

By
Tony Kushner, 1995. Photo: Robert Giard

This piece originally appeared in New York’s 50th anniversary issue, My New York – a special edition that attempts to capture the city’s voice through first-person stories, spoken and written, about how our disparate lives intertwine. Read them all here.

“Tony Kushner and I have now shared 30 years together. It’s half my life that Tony’s been my best friend. We talk about everything. We have to make a rule to not talk about Scott Rudin too much. But we talk about theater all the time and we talk about politics all the time. Tony is one of the great talkers of the Western world.

In 1985, he had just graduated from NYU in the directing program. He started writing plays just to have projects to direct. A friend of mine was in one of those plays and kept telling me, “You’ve got to meet this kid.” And I was a very big, important artistic director [at the Eureka Theatre] in San Francisco at the time, and I pooh-poohed the idea that I needed to meet this kid. Until one day, I was coming to see a Len Jenkin play with that friend, and we’d missed the curtain and there was no late seating. And this friend said, “Well, you know that kid I was telling you about? He’s got a workshop production up in Chelsea, let’s go see that!” And I said, “Fuck, okay.” I was sure it was a waste of time.

It was a tiny little black box — you know, 90 seats, wooden risers, four stories up. There was some kind of brothel on the floor directly above and a size of imagination that could have filled a theater 100 times that big. There were problems with the play, but it was so smart and so beautiful. It was A Bright Room Called Day, which we’re going to be reviving next year at the Public. Which I haven’t announced, but I guess I just announced! It’s about the last six months of the Weimar Republic and the first six months of the Third Reich. And the basic point of it was how incredibly easily democratic institutions can be swept away.

Tony and I met that night and then, in a sign I should have taken more seriously, it took me almost a year to get the script of the play out of him — and it was already written and performed. I finally ended up directing it in the fall of 1987, at the Eureka, and that was Tony’s first professional production. By the time that had opened, we had already commissioned Angels in America.

There’s no artist I’ve learned more from than Tony, and what I’ve learned is a kind of fearless grandiosity. Angels was an immense act of arrogance — to write a seven-hour play about gay people when you were a completely unknown writer whose one show was at best a succès d’estime. So there came a moment where it became clear to me that the Eureka Theatre did not have the resources to do Angels in America.And at that point, I’d have to say, “Thank you very much for writing this, but you’re two years late, it’s still a huge mess, and I have a theater to run.” But I did the opposite. I said, “That show is so good that I believe in it more than I believe in my theater company.” And I left the Eureka and went to Los Angeles to produce Angels in America. I spent six years total with Angels.

Once I accepted that Tony wasn’t late on his deadlines because he was a lazy bum but because he went more deeply into the content of his plays than anyone else I’ve ever seen, then I thought, Okay, my job is to block downfield for him: get the grant money that will allow him to live, find the places where we can workshop this, just give him the space to finish this thing. It remains in a way the greatest achievement in my life, helping to keep the world off Tony long enough for him to finish that play.

And then we were near the end of the rehearsal period, and he came to my house and said, “I don’t think you’re the right person to direct this play.” The way Tony put it was that there was a showbiz element that he wanted in the production that he didn’t think I could provide. He wanted somebody who could make a gay fantasia, and that’s what he got from George [Wolfe, then the director of the Public Theater]. He got a beautiful production.

But I took it as a really difficult blow. I spent about a year, very angry, very distanced from him. The way we put the friendship back together is really through Tony’s unbelievably consistent generosity and refusal to let go of me. He dedicated his next play to me.

A really key moment in our reconciling was when I did Homebody/Kabul at Trinity Rep. That was the first production we worked on again together. And then there was Hair. Tony agreed to do the new book, and then I discovered that Jim Rado was very much alive and under no circumstances was going to allow anybody else to do a book for Hair. But we discussed Hair endlessly. We did it without Tony’s new book, but his ideas made it in there. Even if Hair wasn’t of the moment, it still could be made to resonate with the moment. In that summer of 2008, Darius Nichols, who played Hud, had the song “Colored Spade.” He names all these horrible derogatory terms for what he was, and he’s claiming them as his own, then he walks straight downstage and says, “… and president of the United States of Love!” And the day after Obama got the Democratic nomination, the place went insane. The beautiful thing about the theater is that at its heart it’s such a positive form, binding the entire audience together as one body and making them feel like they’re citizens. E pluribus unum.

That’s what happened with Julius Caesar this summer, and I haven’t talked about this because I didn’t want to give fodder to the enemy. But the real reason that I did Caesar was to provide a cathartic experience for those of us who are losing our minds. What I could feel in myself and in the audience is that we were playing out this violent fantasy and, by playing it out, puncturing its power. So it’s not a coincidence that we’ll be reviving Tony’s A Bright Room Called Day before the midterm elections. The election of Trump really reveals to us that what we thought of as norms were really historically limited and may change completely. That’s kind of what I think Bright Room is saying. Pay attention and defend this thing we have, because God didn’t decree that it was going to be here forever.

What Oskar Eustis Has Learned From Tony Kushner