June 6, 2011

David Henry Hwang and Oskar Eustis discuss the importance of theater and the arts.

"This is a really serious university," declared David Henry Hwang, writer of the Tony-award winning M. Butterfly and, most recently, Chinglish, which will premiere in Chicago's own Goodman Theater on June 18. Hwang spoke at the University of Chicago Artspeaks series on Monday, May 16, in the International House's Assembly Hall.

Hwang was accompanied by Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of New York's Public Theater and also known as the man who both commissioned Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco and then directed its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Professor David Levin of the Department of Germanic Studies, Department of Cinema & Media Studies, and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies, moderated the discussion, which ranged from race relations in theater to the place of arts in a university.

Artspeaks: Voice and vision to artists

Founded eight years ago, the University of Chicago Artspeaks series regularly brings artists—dancers, photographers, painters, and more—to campus to discuss their craft. Past artists include A. S. Byatt, Uri Caine, Atom Egoyan, Leon Fleisher, Peter Sellars, Anna Deavere Smith, Kara Walker, and John Zorn.

Despite Hwang's comment—the result of a question on Schillerism in the theater—the evening was marked equally by both humor and intellectual musings. Eustis joked about the ghosts of his predecessors at the Public Theater visiting him after hours, and audience members competed over the best walk to the microphone once the formal discussion was over and Professor Levin opened the floor for questions by the diverse group of students, theater professionals, and theater appreciators who attended the event.

Shelly Horwitz, a second-year Theater and Performance Studies and English double major, was drawn to the event because of her love of the Public Theater. "I'm a big fan," says Horwtiz, "and was excited to have the opportunity to hear both a prominent modern playwright and the artistic director of such a major theater speak."

Theater's uniqueness

And speak they did. Although they answered the same questions, they gave distinct responses thanks to their different but complementary roles as writer and director. Hwang, for instance, determined that theater's uniqueness as an art form lies in the playwright's greater control over the material, while Eustis contested that theater's inherently social aspect separates it from other arts.

"I loved hearing Oskar Eustis speak about the particular importance of theater, and why it's important—and even necessary—in an increasingly electronic world," says Horwitz. "His explanation of the importance of having the audience's communal experience when you see a show was one of the best explanations that I've ever heard of why theater is still important in a world that has Netflix Instant."

Afterwards, the audience and artists gathered for a reception to continue the discussion in a more relaxed setting. "I went to the Tony Kushner Artspeaks event last year," says Horwitz. "I think it's a great program, and hope that it can continue to bring more interesting, successful arts practitioners to UChicago in the future."

By Jessen O'Brien, AB'12

David Henry Hwang, writer of the Tony-award winning M. Butterfly, and Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of New York's Public Theater, spoke at the International House with David Levin on Monday, May 16, as part of the Artspeaks series. (Photo by Jason Smith)