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Going Public by Rob Kendt
When Joseph Papp founded what was first called the Shakespeare Workshop in 1954, his day job was as a stage manager for CBS Television. In the space of a few years, Papp’s fledgling troupe, the New York Shakespeare Festival, had begun to offer free performances in Central Park, and growing city support meant that Papp could at last draw a salary at his festival post.

So when CBS fired him that year, was he relieved? Not the fiery Papp: He’d been axed because he pleaded the Fifth in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. So he sued CBS to reinstate him, won the job back—and then summarily quit.

Playwright Rinne Groff didn’t have this legendary standoff in mind when she wrote The Ruby Sunrise, the first play in Oskar Eustis’ initial season as artistic director of the Public Theater, the institution into which Papp’s Shakespeare Festival later grew. But among the things Eustis relishes in Groff’s play, which he is also directing, is that it’s partly set in a New York television studio in the early 1950s, and that its story follows a young woman as she navigates the challenges facing the new medium, from corporate-driven compromises to the McCarthy-era blacklist.

“It’s very resonant, doing this play in the house that Joe built,” says Eustis, whose first season at the Public also includes premieres by Anna Deavere Smith, Michael John LaChiusa, David Grimm, and José Rivera. There are other ways, Eustis explains, in which this first production can be seen as a demonstration of the theater’s role.

“You can look at The Ruby Sunrise in microcosm, and there are several things about it that speak to the Public’s identity,” says Eustis. “Rinne is a young, relatively unknown writer whom I completely believe in, and I’m thrilled to present her work. And she comes from the Downtown performance art scene as a writer and performer with Elevator Repair Service. Her work has been in the realm of the experimental, the avant-garde. One of the missions of the Public has been to bring artists who foster their work in the hothouse environment of the avant-garde, and encourage them to stretch out their accessibility for a wide audience, and see if that can be done without reducing the essence of what they do.”

Indeed, “A Home forWriters” was among the bullet points in Eustis’ much-discussed position piece in the Village Voice in August, in which he laid out his ambitious vision for the Public. Citing Papp’s ideals—reaching a wide audience with both the best of the classics and the best work from new writers—and acknowledging the contributions of his predecessors, Joanne Akalaitis and George C. Wolfe, Eustis wrote: “I’m in charge, not of changing our mission, but of figuring out how these great values and traditions can be embodied in 21st-century New York.”

In articulating what the Public stands for, Eustis contrasted it with what he sees as
regrettably ascendant cultural values. “We live in a time of capitalist triumphalism, where any alternative to the commodity-fetishizing marketplace seems unthinkable, even laughable,” he wrote. “The great nonprofit institutions must resist this. The theater is an event, not an object. It must not only remain accessible to the broad class of patrons whoare vitally interested in it, but become accessible to the millions who don’t know the theater has anything to offer them. We need to defend the non-commercial nature of our theater with muscle and vigor.”

Eustis also quoted Brecht, who once said, “Don’t start from the good old days, but the
bad new ones.” So why would Eustis kick off his first season with a play about television
history, from the medium’s invention in the 1920s to its wide popularization in the 1950s? Because, as Eustis explains, the play’s tale of idealism under fire dramatizes the struggle between the commercial and creative.

“That’s what Ruby is about: You have your artistic principles, your integrity, and what you want to say,” Eustis says. “Now, how can you execute them with an impact that will actually help change the world? The play has a very complicated view of it. Its fundamental position is that it’s possible to do it, but it entails learning how to live with losses that are heartbreaking.”

Playwright Groff says she’s drawn to characters“who are struggling with the issue: ‘Is it
possible to change the world?’” The characters in The Ruby Sunrise face a particularly uphill battle, as they’re working in a medium that essentially employs creative people to “sell detergent.” Groff recalls a comment made by one of the cast members, Richard Masur, a veteran of both the tube and the stage who once served as president of the Screen Actors Guild: “He said that no one sets out to make a bad TV show, but that with all the demands and pressures and audiences you have to answer to, it’s amazing if anything is ever good. It’s almost a mistake, a magical mistake, when something is good.”

For his part, Eustis says he finds the play’s ambivalence moving.“We all love plays where heroes take big noble stands that define what they are, but that’s actually not what we do,” Eustis says.“We spend our lives doing what we can in compromised circumstances. It’s actually a very grown-up play.”

How appropriate. Joe Papp’s baby is 50 years old, after all.

Visit The Public’s box office at 425 Lafayette St. or call Telecharge at 212.239.6200 or visit

Rob Kendt is a freelance arts writer who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
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