LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
As soon as summer begins, so does Shakespeare in the Park. This New York City tradition was started in 1954 by The Public Theater to make William Shakespeare's work more accessible. In fact, it's free if you line up at dawn in Central Park, which people do in queues that stretch for blocks. The tradition took a COVID-safe detour to the radio last summer. This year, it's back to the outdoors. Joining us to talk about it is Oskar Eustis. He is the artistic director of The Public Theater. Welcome.
OSKAR EUSTIS: Thank you, glad to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does it feel to be able to return to Central Park?
EUSTIS: Well, ecstatic might seem like hyperbole, but no, it's ecstatic. It's fantastic to be back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, usually there are two plays, right? This summer, you chose just one. It's a comedy, the very great "The Merry Wives Of Windsor" - lots of fun, lots of uplift. Why just one play and why that one?
EUSTIS: Well, the one play is because planning for these things is very hard. And at the time we started planning, we weren't even sure we were going to be able to do one play. And so we just thought, let's keep it simple. Let's focus on a small cast, one show. And it's turned out to be a very good choice. The play itself is because, you know, when we talked among the staff, there were things that everybody said they wanted. They wanted to celebrate. They wanted to laugh. They wanted to come back together and feel like New Yorkers. And so the choice of "Merry Wives" and "Merry Wives" with an all-Black cast set in contemporary South Harlem is a deliberate attempt to say Shakespeare in the Park belongs to all of New York, that immigrants belong, that Black people belong, that all of us together own William Shakespeare and all of us together make up a city.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take me to those first rehearsals when you all gathered for the first time. I imagine it must have been incredibly emotional.
EUSTIS: Oh, my God. We had HEPA filters running every three feet in the rehearsal hall. Everybody got tested. Everybody was wearing masks. And yet when we first came into the room, it was like a child's fifth birthday. We were all giddy with pleasure to be back working again. And then we started the first read-through, and within half an hour, we were back doing our jobs. We were working on a play. And the amazing part of coming back together again had already happened. Now we were doing our work. And that is actually a deeper and more lasting gratification to just be allowed to work again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's been really, really hard for the theater, actors, everyone involved in putting on shows for people.
EUSTIS: The theater took the epidemic right on the chin. We shut down on March 12, and instantly, every stage actor in the country was unemployed. At the same time, most of them were losing whatever side gigs they had because restaurants and bars were closing as well. So the economic devastation, not just for actors, but for our entire theater freelance community, has been horrendous. And I sincerely hope that we will continue as a nation to be providing support for them in the year ahead. It's going to be a rough transition.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is a city that is grieving. I mean, it's a city that's taken it on the chin.
EUSTIS: We have lost so much, and we are definitely talking about how to remember, how to ritualize, how to create rites of mourning and rites of remembrance for the theater. But we also felt that the first thing we had to do coming back was remind everybody of our joy in each other, and that joy is all over "Merry Wives Of Windsor."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us and remind us the importance of Shakespeare, especially now. I just feel like there's so much wisdom and joy in his work.
EUSTIS: Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of the English language, and he was always a great writer. But what made him the greatest was that he was performing for the most diverse audience that anyone had been performing for since the ancient Greeks. The Tudor compromise (ph) created an audience of aristocrats and royalty and illiterate groundlings. And Shakespeare had to write for all of them at once and show all of them what they had in common with each other. So it means he's the most democratic of writers. And it's why the experience at the Delacorte is so special because the audience doesn't just think that Shakespeare is for everybody. They're experiencing that Shakespeare is for everybody. And giving ownership of Shakespeare to everybody is what makes this culture democratic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oskar Eustis is the artistic director of The Public Theater. Thank you very much.
EUSTIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.