After George’s Public-Who, What and Why?

Memo: Kenneth B. Lerer, Chairman of the Board at the Public Theater

From: Me

All agree that George C. Wolfe will be a hard act to follow when he steps down next season as producer of the Public. I see you’ve formed a special search committee to find his successor, and will also be hiring a search firm to search some more. That’s an awful lot of searching .

It reminds me of the time I was traveling through the Sahara with a bunch of actors, and one of them wandered off and got lost. We had to send out a search party to look for him. But then, in the urgency and panic, the search party got lost. So we ended up sending out another search party to search for the search party. “Yoo-hoo!” we all called out hopefully in the ghostly, desert silence. “Anyone seen the search party?” We found the actor in the end, by the way. He was up a mountain. He’d left our desert base near Tamanransset at dawn to climb a mountain. It was the last place anyone expected to find him.

It all happened long ago, on a journey through the Sahara with Peter Brook and his deranged troupe of actors. There’s a moral! If you want to find what you’re looking for, always search in the most unlikely place.

If you’d hired a search firm 10 years ago to find the new head of the Public Theater, you wouldn’t have found Mr. Wolfe. The chances are that the conventional search system you now have in place would have rounded up the usual suspects that thrive in boring institutional theaters. But George Wolfe had yet to become George Wolfe. He was found outside the system.

All that was really known about him then was that he’d written a fine play, The Colored Museum , and directed the Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam (which he also wrote). At heart, he’s always been a writer who happens to be a great director! There’s never been a production of his-even the few bombs-that we haven’t anticipated with the sheer excitement of its possibilities . He brought to the Public the thrilling ingredient of being there . He’s an artist who knows how to encourage and cheer for other artists. But his priceless achievement is to have brought the spectrum of New York City into the Public Theater.

It’s forgotten now that when he took over at the Public, the theater had lost its way. Your lobby-now bustling with a cross-section of the entire city-was forlorn and empty. Just one meager production was on offer in the last days of the ancien régime (a one-man Beckett show, at that).

My own joy at Mr. Wolfe’s tenure has always been in the mirror he held up to the rich diversity of New York, in the tradition of the Public’s founder, Joe Papp. He’s been truly public -giving voice to downtown minorities and artists on the margins while building an audience who want to hear and be challenged by all they have to tell us. He’s the only producer in the city at a major theater to pull off that miracle when our institutions-bloated by subscription lists of white, aging theatergoers content with safe, mediocre fare-don’t seem to care.

But from my point of view, Mr. Wolfe’s Achilles’ heel is his “Broadway-itis.” And if I may say so, Mr. Lerer, so is yours. It’s understandable. Who doesn’t enjoy success and awards ? I’m with George Burns, who said of the Academy Awards that he’d accept Best Actress if they offered it him. But Mr. Wolfe’s best work-the wonderful achievements, from his Tempest to Bring in da Noise , to the Suzan-Lori Parks dramas, to Caroline, or Change -weren’t staged with Broadway in mind. They exist and thrive proudly at the Public in their own right.

In other fighting words, they fulfill the entire purpose of the nonprofit theater-and the reason for the Public Theater’s existence in the first place-by offering a radical alternative to commercial Broadway. But Mr. Wolfe faltered badly only when he lost sight of what he-and the Public-do best. Tempted by commercial success, his productions of On the Town and The Wild Party on Broadway lost $11 million, and the Public lurched into a crisis of its own making.

Yet here you are, Mr. Lerer, in your warm tribute to Mr. Wolfe, proudly listing all his productions that have been transferred to Broadway, as if Broadway is the ultimate seal of approval. If a show at the Public transfers to the Great White Elderly Way for Tourists-fine! May it become another A Chorus Line and earn millions for your theater. But Broadway shouldn’t be your ambition and symbol of success. Only fine work at the Public is the point-the fiercely independent, uncompromised aim, a last stronghold against the rule of mediocrity, an ideal, a dream.

But then, I belong to the nonprofit school of thought in which George Devine, the legendary founder of the Royal Court Theatre in London, once chastised his own stunned chairman by writing to him: “We must support our artists at all cost- especially when the critics don’t like them.”

Who today truly believes that?

The good news is that George Wolfe is to continue directing at the Public in what will be a new era. I’ll miss him, though. I’ll miss him lurking in the lobby, looking effervescently paranoid and hopeful in his enthusiasm and naked love for theater. As your national search parties continue searching, searching the land for his successor, I hope you won’t mind my suggesting that you might try looking around the corner on East Fourth Street for James Nicola at the New York Theatre Workshop.

I’ve never met him, but I feel I know him through his work. He isn’t a showman like Papp-or Mr. Wolfe-but his downtown following is secure and flourishing. He’s a successful Off Broadway producer who doesn’t direct. His time and interests aren’t therefore divided, as Mr. Wolfe’s are, to bursting point. (Joe Papp was essentially a producer first and foremost; he rarely directed.) Mr. Nicola has put the New York Theatre Workshop on the map with a consistently intriguing repertoire-including the original gamble of Rent and the challenging work of internationally known dramatists like Caryl Churchill. In his quiet way, he’s been running a mini–Public Theater for years.

But I would like to see two new appointments taking the Public into its new era. Mr. Nicola, say, as producer in partnership with a newly created position, Shakespeare producer. Now that the financial crisis at the Public seems to have passed, I’d like you to appoint a full-time producer of Shakespeare for the first time in the Public’s history. Joe Papp’s greatest legacy was his insistence on the annual Free Shakespeare Festival in the Park. The Public itself was founded on it. It’s the most important gift the theater could give to the city, its children and the future.

But what has always been missing is real confidence in performing Shakespeare! There are exceptions, but the productions as a whole have always been notoriously hit-and-miss, the values not all they could be, what with the Brooklyn-accented clowns dropping their pants as always. Last season’s Henry V , with its rows of gilt bar-mitzvah chairs in the midst of the battlefield, took the strudel.

I would beg, borrow and steal money to return Shakespeare in the Park to its customary two productions in summer and hire a top producer to train and coach an inner troupe of actors to bring the Shakespeare plays to life. The troupe could also cross-fertilize with the regular productions on the Public’s stages. Karin Coonrod is the leading Shakespeare producer in the country. She’s done superlative work at Theatre for the New Audience as well as the Public. She even respects the text . She’s the one .

I’ve never met her, either. But there we are! Mr. Nicola as the producer, and Ms. Coonrod as the new Shakespeare producer, would make for exciting times at the Public and continue a great tradition, yes?

Best of luck, anyway.


John Heilpern

After George’s Public-Who, What and Why?