Succeeding at the Public


George C. Wolfe may have recently announced his resignation as producer of the Public Theater, but it’s Joe Papp who’s the object of sudden nostalgia. On one hand, it’s only natural that the Public’s founding spirit should loom large at a time when the institution is searching for its next leader. On the other, it’s a sign of the trepidation many in the industry feel about the uncertain course of America’s flagship theater when corporatizing trends are buffeting even Off-Broadway. Artists and administrators who spoke to the Voice held divergent views on many of the issues raised by Wolfe’s impending exit. Yet they concur that the soul not just of the Public but of American theater is on the line, and that the time has come to take a defiant stand.

“It is tremendously important to the rest of us that the Public not falter in its central mission,” says Trinity Rep artistic director Oskar Eustis, whose name has been bandied about as a possible successor to Wolfe’s throne. “It’s the most important theater in America, and the one that made me, and nearly everyone else I know, believe that the theater was worth going into.”

Eustis sees four essential elements to the Public’s profile: “First, its commitment to the development of new work. No other theater could replace the Public if it were to back away from this. Second, its standing as the premier American theater of social engagement. I say social only because of the difficulties in using the word political in these, frankly, reactionary times. Third, the showcasing of new plays alongside Shakespeare, who has been held up as the model for contemporary writers—the epic scope serving as an implicit marker for how big new work should dream and how various its stagecraft can be. Finally, the Public is a theater of inclusion. We really have to credit George for this. He worked a miracle. One can make the case that it is the only major cultural institution in America not perceived as a ‘white’ institution. That is a staggering achievement. One of the democratic functions of the Public has been to continue empowering people to come into their own as theater artists. If any of these four dimensions are compromised, we will have lost something irreplaceable.”

Pursuing this ambitious agenda for the Public’s six indoor stages and its summer season in Central Park is inherently challenging, but particularly so at a time when the decades-long dismantling of governmental arts funding has entrenched commercialized thinking in nonprofit theaters. Sure, the financial coup Papp achieved with A Chorus Line—the Broadway cash cow that funded artistic risk and commitment at the Public for years—set the precedent. Yet artistic directors now seem perversely enslaved to this model. “Chasing Broadway,” as playwright Mac Wellman calls it, has become both a strategy of survival and the measure of artistic success. Wolfe scored more triumphs than most, but not even his enviable record could keep the accountants from imposing their soul-destroying fiscal regimen.

The Public’s board of directors is only now forming a search committee, yet already there is widespread concern that the appointed kingmakers won’t question the current system. The names tossed out by the Times (Jim Nicola, Joe Mantello, Michael Greif, Doug Hughes, and Nicholas Martin on February 13, with Eustis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Des McAnuff, Robert Falls, and Peter DuBois added on February 19) constitute a list remarkable mainly for the narrowness of its scope. The not so subtle suggestion is that the most qualified prospects are white male directors who have served (memorably or not) as artistic directors. This feels to some like the spread of a regional theater rash.

The assumption that the position will be filled by a Broadway-bound director has engendered heated debate. “The Public is a unique animal largely because it was originally defined by a visionary producer,” says Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists. “Its mandate and accrued power are so big that it demands a leader whose life work is to create a theater, not merely to stage plays. Unless we’re talking about an artist like Elizabeth LeCompte, whose aesthetic deeply defines her theater, directors are divided, forced to choose between the rehearsal room and the office.”

London thinks that boards across America should open their collective minds to playwrights, dramaturges, actors, and producers when searching for leaders. Director Anne Bogart points to the model of arts centers, like the Wexner in Columbus, Ohio, that have been playing a key role in the development of innovative performance work. “When I look around the country, this is where I see life,” she says. “Artistic producers—rather than directors—tend to run these organizations, and they’ve been more courageous than their counterparts in the nonprofit theater world.”

“The Public needs someone who views the role of producer as an artistic pursuit,” says Nicola, New York Theatre Workshop’s artistic director, who’s on many people’s short list for the job. “George is leaving because he wants to get back to being an artist and not a producer. Running as complicated and sizable an organization as the Public necessarily takes spiritual and psychic energy that might go into creativity as an artist.”

There’s another problem, however, with having a very active director run the place: Focus inevitably tilts towards the projects he or she is working on. “It’s not a question of siphoning the resources of the theater,” explains Nicola. “But the staff—those who make things happen for productions—are likely to be more generous when working for the boss. It’s an organizational issue.”

“I was trained as a theater director,” says P.S.122’s departing executive director Mark Russell, “but see myself primarily as directing a theater. It’s about animating a building and a community that goes along with it. Joe Papp wanted to create an inclusive environment, where ideas could bounce off the walls. To do this today you’d probably have to take down the extremely high production values, but the point would be to bring the theater into the 21st century.”

“The Public needs someone whose priority is artists and new work,” says Ellie Covan, executive director of Dixon Place. “George directed brilliantly, but there was a lot of unused real estate during his tenure. There isn’t another facility like this in the country, and you need someone with Joe’s broad commitment to downtown nonprofit theater to realize its artistic mission.”

Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose career has been nurtured by Wolfe, feels it’s important to hire someone who will appreciate the Public’s unique tradition of providing an ongoing home for writers. “For us, the theater serves in the same way a studio does for painters,” he says. “It’s the place where the work comes to full fruition.”

Playwright Kia Corthron can’t help harking back to the special atmosphere she encountered at the Public when she first arrived in New York in the late ’80s: “It was the tail end of Joe Papp’s time, and what was so exciting was the number of productions simultaneously going on. Whether anyone can bring that back in this era is a big question. But since every theater is financially insecure, you almost hope that whoever is in the position really goes for it and prevents the Public from becoming just another Off-Broadway venue.”

“We can’t replicate Joe Papp,” says Foundry Theatre artistic director Melanie Joseph. “These are different times. And let’s not forget, he was an artist—a producer artist—and therefore one of a kind. We need to find another amazing creature with his kind of creative producing energy who can appreciate the opportunity to host the greatest party imaginable.”

Related Story:

A Public Farewell: Lauded and Embattled, George C. Wolfe Calls It Quits After 11 Years” by Alisa Solomon