Culture Is There For Those Hostile To It, Too

Just came across Oskar Eustis’ TED Talk, “Why Theatre Is Essential To Democracy.” He talks about the how so much of the work Joe Papp did with the Public Theater was about expanding access and telling important stories that were being muted.

Eustis goes on to talk about how he has been trying to extend that mission as the current director of the Public Theater, taking shows out to the five boroughs of NYC and to NJ rather than expecting people to come to them in Manhattan.

I wrote a little about this when I covered Eustis’ keynote at the 2016 Arts Midwest conference where I wrote,

He also mentioned despite doing so many free productions in Central Park, they discovered only their prison program and the shows they trucked out to the five boroughs of NYC were the only programs that were serving a mix of people that reflected the demographics of NYC.

In his TED Talk, Eustis mentions how the curtain call statement by the cast of Hamilton  to then Vice President-elect Pence had spurred calls for boycotts of the show.

I looked at that boycott and I said, we’re getting something wrong here. All of these people who have signed this boycott petition, they were never going to see “Hamilton” anyway. It was never going to come to a city near them. If it could come, they couldn’t afford a ticket, and if they could afford a ticket, they didn’t have the connections to get that ticket.

They weren’t boycotting us; we had boycotted them. And if you look at the red and blue electoral map of the United States, and if I were to tell you, “Oh, the blue is what designates all of the major nonprofit cultural institutions,” I’d be telling you the truth. You’d believe me. We in the culture have done exactly what the economy, what the educational system, what technology has done, which is turn our back on a large part of the country.

With this in mind, he says next Fall the Public Theater is going to take Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, on tour to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin:

Sweat is based on interviews Nottage conducted during visits to Reading, PA where she also helped create the multi-media, site specific production of This Is Reading that I have written about before.  (Be sure to read Margy Waller’s account of the production which I link to in both articles.)

Eustis describes Sweat as,

…about the deindustrialization of Pennsylvania: what happened when steel left, the rage that was unleashed, the tensions that were unleashed, the racism that was unleashed by the loss of jobs.

Eustis give us a lot to think about when it comes to bridging the gap between the ideals expressed in mission statements and grant proposals and translating them into action.  He could have easily concluded boycott efforts wouldn’t hurt Hamilton ticket sales one whit, ignored the disapproval and continued on. Instead, he concluded there was an unmet need and a problem that needed to be addressed and started to put a production together to respond to them.

The approach isn’t going to be one of, “we are Broadway and we are here to illuminate your poor benighted souls,”

We’re partnering with community organizations there to try and make sure not only that we reach the people that we’re trying to reach, but that we find ways to listen to them back and say, “The culture is here for you, too.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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