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Robert Brustein Discusses His Letters to a Young Actor With Oskar Eustis at Public Theater logo
Robert Brustein, Oskar Eustis
Although the Oskar Eustis-Robert Brustein chat held in the Public Theater's Susan Stein Shiva auditorium yesterday might have looked like incoming artistic director Eustis's first official act at the theater, it wasn't. The event didn't take place under Public Theater auspices; rather, it was sponsored by Basic Books, publisher of Brustein's new tome Letters to a Young Actor. Eustis, who won't move into the Public until some time this spring, hosted in honor of a colleague whom he obviously reveres.

Nevertheless, the hour-long conversation between two theater-company vets may have held a few titillating previews of coming attractions for those who like to read between the lines. In the course of ballyhooing his young actors' guide, Brustein talked about finding the right model to emulate when running a not-for-profit company. Briefly giving a history of theater companies over the last century and also talking about his tenures at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre and Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, Brustein looked askance at the pressures of commercial theater and plugged for independent means of supporting companies. He also discussed the potential perils of Broadway transfers.

Whether this will have any effect on Eustis's attitude towards Broadway as a goal of his impending productions was impossible to ascertain, of course. Nevertheless, it's something worth thinking about, since the Public -- first under Joseph Papp and then under George C. Wolfe -- has always kept an eye on the possible Broadway move. Late in the conversation, Eustis became impassioned about how theater "defies commodification," but it mightn't be wise to interpret this comment as meaning that the Public will no longer sell T-shirts.

Clearly, Brustein and Eustis are members of a mutual admiration society. Prefacing the plugs for his book, Brustein said, "The Public made an extraordinary choice in Oskar Eustis...and will benefit enormously." Eustis, an enthusiastic interrogator, praised Brustein for the qualities that "just sing out of the book" he's written for wannabe actors. Since the pair seem to be old friends, It may not be a stretch to assume that they'll exchange ideas -- or continue to exchange ideas -- about viable theater-company strategies.

Eustis's interview was primarily intended to enlighten those for whom Brustein wrote the book. The small audience was made up mostly of young people, presumably all or most of whom want to act. Among their number were what Public officials are calling "student ambassadors," a newly formed house group whose members talk up theater -- and the Public -- to their peers. For them, and without much prodding from Eustis, Brustein touched on many of the points that he makes in his new book. He began by saying, "I'm writing at a time when the theater is not that hospitable to young actors," but added that he is also putting down thoughts accumulated over decades in expectation of a future "when the country comes to its senses again."

As powerful advice to aspiring actors, Brustein quoted Anton Chekhov on the need to "get some steel in your blood" and insisted that tenacity and persistence are necessities. "Keep your eye on what you want," he said. Furthermore, he advocated reconciling financial need with a love of theater art. Another challenge to which he referred was developing a strong sense of self while eschewing vanity; he quoted the late Colleen Dewhurst as having told him that actors need to find the right balance between vulnerability and invulnerability.

Under the vulnerability rubric, Brustein brought up critics' assaults. Mentioning that he views some of his own early criticism as embarrassing, he talked about reviews as having devolved into the mere scattering of opinions. But, quoting Chekhov again through the character of Nina in The Seagull, this sometime actor said that "the actor's lot is to endure."

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