The theater director who endured death threats and lost corporate sponsors after staging a Donald Trump-inspired version of “Julius Caesar” has a message to any artist fearful of facing similar backlash — don’t flinch.
“We can’t allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed. We can’t allow ourselves to feel we’re completely isolated. We’re not,” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, told The Associated Press.
“We’re speaking for the majority of the country and we need to draw strength from that and step out and take the risks that will really fulfill the arts’ historic function.”
Eustis sparked controversy when he chose to portray Caesar as an ego-driven populist with fluffy blond hair, a gold bathtub and a leggy Slovenian wife for his free Shakespeare in the Park summer production.
While Trump’s name was never mentioned, the backlash was swift after photos and video appeared online of the Trumpian Caesar dying in a bloody group stabbing in Act 3, as has happened onstage for some 400 years.
Some screamed that the production condoned the assassination of Trump, even though the play clearly warns those who commit political violence even for noble reasons about the futility of their actions. Several protesters stormed the stage and police are investigating threatening phone calls made to Eustis’ family.
“I thought we might provoke some response but what I thought is we’d provoke response to our production, and what we got was not a response to our production but a response to a completely slanted, biased reporting on a photograph and video tapes of our production,” said Eustis.
Delta and Bank of America pulled their sponsorships of the production and, perhaps most painfully, The National Endowment for the Arts, which Trump once proposed eliminating, made a point of saying it had no role in the show.
“The NEA being forced to distance themselves from our production is a very sad commentary on how incredibly vulnerable they feel as a federal agency. I don’t have any criticism for them at all. They are fighting for their life,” said Eustis.
He said The Public, with deep roots in the community and wide financial support, will weather the storm. He said it has received more than 35,000 supportive emails, letters and social media comments, along with some 2,000 letters containing checks. (Filmmaker Michael Moore also promised to kick in $10,000.)
What Eustis most fears is that the blowback will have a chilling effect on less secure theater companies “because they’ll be afraid of the consequences.” Theater companies with Shakespeare in their name, but nothing to do with The Public have already become targets of vitriol.
Arian Moayed, a Tony-nominated actor and artistic director of the innovative theater company Waterwell, watched the events unfold with dread. He was onstage in his own updated production of “Hamlet,” this one set in Persia in the early 20th century.
“What happened to The Public and Oskar is kind of the worst fear for any theater-maker or artists of any field, mostly because we do live in a world where artistic freedom is all we have,” Moayed said.
The venerable Shakespeare & Company felt the collateral damage as far away as Lenox, Massachusetts. It was the target of caustic emails and voicemails from people mistakenly assuming it had a role in the show.
Allyn Burrows, the artistic director, chose to use the controversy to engage, quietly emailing hate-spewing critics back with a “Julius Caesar” synopsis and trying to tamp down the vitriol. “We’re used to screaming around here. We’re a theater company, right?”
While calling Eustis’ approach “bold,” Burrows said theater companies must follow their own muses when making art and be prepared to explain it. “You create theater to engage people in conversation. You can’t necessarily then be discriminatory on what kind of conversation it is.”
The theater community has struggled with the change in the White House. With Barack Obama, they had a president who often came to Broadway shows and who even helped champion one in “Hamilton.” Trump does not seem to share his predecessor’s enjoyment of live theater.
The fault line was quickly exposed when then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to “Hamilton” and was given a pointed message about diversity from the cast after the show. Trump hit back, saying theater “must always be a safe and special place.” Theater professionals scoffed: Theater, they say, must never be safe.
The stage world’s response to Trump has included Robert Schenkkan’s play “Building the Wall,” a Broadway transfer of George Orwell’s “1984,” and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington this fall reviving “The Arsonists,” about liberal apathy. More political plays are on tap as artists tackle the Trump era.
“I feel that people are making more work or wanting to create more,” said Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in downtown Manhattan. “Something this galvanizing is going to push us in a new direction that, hopefully, something good will come out of this.”
Moayed hopes theater can serve as a bridge between a divided America. “It’s so black and white in our industry right now. It’s either you hate Donald Trump or you love Donald Trump and there’s nothing in between,” he said.
“When you bring both sides of the equation to the table and have them just look at each other — face-to-face — without judgment and without irony or cynicism, you really can make an impact.”
Meanwhile, Eustis finds a silver lining in the sudden jolt of electricity that William Shakespeare is enjoying.
“The brouhaha over ‘Julius Caesar’ is an illustration of the fact that the arts have the ability to be on the cutting edge of positive change. We have the ability to make statements about democracy, about free speech, about robust debates, about the fact that controversy is a good thing for the arts. It’s what the arts are supposed to provoke. This is an opportunity that I hope folks won’t let go by.”