Oskar Eustis: The First Time I Burned Money (and Found My Calling)
One evening in May 1975, I stood outside a bank in Ann Arbor, Mich., and lit every dollar in my wallet on fire. As the bills burned, I held them up to the sky, tears streaming down my face.
It was a moment that, in slow motion, changed my life.
I was born in 1958 and came of age in the ’70s. I was raised in Minnesota by progressive Democrats (on my father and stepmother’s side) and deeply committed Communists (my mother and stepfather). My father was a proud leader of the D.F.L., the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Minnesota’s own version of the national Democratic Party. The D.F.L., the party of Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey and, later, Paul Wellstone, was the product of a merger that left it a living representative of the progressive ideals of the 1930s.
After my parents’ divorce, my mother married a second-generation Communist. She then converted and remained a passionate and committed party member until her death in 2014. Her doctoral thesis was on Puritan spiritual autobiography; given that she was a Puritan scholar turned Communist, her instincts for discipline and asceticism were deeply grounded.
Both families were rooted in political life, and although there were profound differences between my two sets of parents, politically and otherwise, all of them were committed to social engagement for a better world. All four of them saw their function in life as giving back to the greater society and struggling to make a more just and equitable planet. They were also academics: All four of my parents were professors at the University of Minnesota (law, women’s studies, physics and public policy).
Naturally, I went into the arts and didn’t graduate from college. How else could I rebel?
The counterculture of the early 1970s, when I was forging my independence, was a strange and often incoherent brew of politics, self-expression, spiritual seeking, gender fluidity and art-making. It was a heady time, and while it wasn’t exactly bliss to be alive, it was a time of remarkable possibility. It was also the time when I fell in love with the avant-garde theater.
There was a vital experimental scene in Minneapolis — the Palace Theater was doing extraordinary work — but it was the touring companies that came through the city, mostly at the Walker Art Center, that truly blew my mind. The Iowa Theater Lab, Mabou Mines, the Performance Group (now the Wooster Group) — all infected me with a passion for boundary-breaking, difficult and above all new work.
I’d already discovered that the theater felt like home to me — for a Minnesota boy, I laughed too loudly, gestured too broadly, spoke too fast and God knows cried too easily to be readily at ease anywhere other than in the theater. But now I had a place to put my displaced radicalism: the avant-garde.
I graduated from high school early and then spent a year hitching around the country, hooking up with theater companies and festivals along the way. I’d arrive in a city, sleep in the park or find someone with a couch and eagerly participate in the festival. The work I tended to like was abstract — difficult, often impenetrable pieces whose formal complexity seemed to elevate the art to something more than the mundane. Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and the amazing Lee Breuer and JoAnne Akalaitis of Mabou Mines — these were the artists who inspired me most.
But in May 1975, I found myself at the second Invitational Festival of Experimental Theater in Ann Arbor, and I met the Living Theater.
The Living Theater, founded and run by Julian Beck and Judith Malina, was the legendary mother of us all. Founded in 1947 in New York as a European-style art theater, the Living (as it was known) soon morphed into one of the most politically radical and boldly adventurous theaters in American history. Its productions of “The Brig” and “The Connection” were landmarks, as were its Brecht productions. Since the early 1960s, its members had been living in Europe in tax exile, an anarchist collective as pure in its political passions as it was committed to its alternative lifestyle.
In Ann Arbor, the Living presented the first site-specific piece I had ever seen: “The Legacy of Cain.” It brought the audience on a procession through Ann Arbor, stopping at buildings, from the R.O.T.C. to the police station, which it saw as representative of the military-industrial complex. At each building, it led a ceremony, formal and almost religious, to reject the building and all it stood for. At the bank, the Living handed out Monopoly money to ceremoniously burn, representing our rejection of the commodity-driven financial culture of capitalism.
The audience burned the play money; I burned my real money, all of it. It was a foolish, even silly gesture — although I don’t remember how much, I’m sure I had to borrow from a friend just to get back to Minnesota. But I’d had an experience that would stay with me forever: The seed had been planted that my radical artistic impulses could be connected to my political engagement.
I moved to Europe and worked in the German-speaking world, still avant-garde, still searching. Three and a half years later, I spent Christmas 1978 in East Berlin. Listening to the new Patti Smith album, I heard her say, “In heart I am a Muslim, in heart I am an American artist — and I have no guilt.” I knew it was time to go home and make a life that made sense of all the different strands of my work, that integrated my radical aesthetics with my radical politics.
I committed myself to playwrights, because only the writer could communicate ideas with power and depth in the theater.
I committed myself to stories, because telling stories is the great equalizer, the way that all audiences are allowed a way into the work, regardless of age, education or privilege.
And I committed myself to expanding the range of who gets to participate in the theater — who gets to see it, who gets to make it, whose story gets told — because the promise of America is that the culture belongs to everyone.
I was lucky enough, many years later, to find a home at the Public Theater.