‘Julius Caesar’ director urges artists to ‘take risks’

Mark Kennedy
Associated Press

New York — 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.

FILE - In this May 21, 2017, file photo provided by The Public Theater, Tina Benko, left, portrays Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry, center left, portrays President Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar during a dress rehearsal of The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York. Teagle F. Bougere, center right, plays as Casca, and Elizabeth Marvel, right, as Marc Anthony. Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., said vicious emails it's gotten from people angry about a production of "Julius Caesar" in which a Donald Trump-like character gets assassinated are misdirected since it had nothing to do with the play in New York. The theater is using the mistake as a teachable moment. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via AP, File)

“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.

Some said Director Oskar Eustis’ production condoned President Trump’s assassination.

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 Theater, 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.

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.”