The day after announcing that he will step down next season as producer of the Public Theater to focus on his writing, George C. Wolfe is not in the mood for reflection. Having just flown out to Los Angeles for a day to oversee the opening of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog—which premiered at the Public under Wolfe’s direction in 2001, moved to Broadway, and won the Pulitzer—he’s talking at his typical supersonic speed while an assistant back in New York rings the call-waiting to remind him they still need a sound designer for the next project and a colleague on the West Coast tugs on his sleeve with some urgent request. “I can’t even imagine what it will be like not to come into the office every day,” he says, noting that the chief post at one of the most important theaters in America was his first regular job. “I was an artist,” he explains with an audible shrug. “I did temp work.”
By all accounts, Wolfe’s experience and sensibility as an artist define his 11-year tenure more than his role as a “showman” or “impresario”—the terms that heralded his selection by the Public’s board of directors in 1993, when they summarily dismissed JoAnne Akalaitis, the successor to the Public Theater founder Joseph Papp, whom he named in 1991 shortly before his death three months later. Admirers and detractors alike point primarily to Wolfe’s work in the rehearsal room when they consider his impact. “He’s a rank-and-file artist,” says the playwright Jose Rivera, whose Marisol and References to Salvador Dali had their New York premieres at the Public. “He doesn’t descend on the process from above, but from within. He’s had to solve the same problems as the rest of us, endure the same critics, and that wins him respect from other writers and directors.” For Tonya Pinkins, star of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change, which recently completed its run at the Public and opens on Broadway in May, Wolfe, as a director, makes the hard work of preparing a show a pleasurable process of discovery. “He always says that brilliance lies in the moment that might not work,” Pinkins asserts, explaining how he encourages actors to explore and reach.
While running the $12 million institution, whose five stages, Joe’s Pub (the cabaret Wolfe founded), and prolific workshop series have presented scores of artists—among them Nilo Cruz, Michael Greif, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang, Lisa Kron, Arthur Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anna Deavere Smith, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Diana Son—and provided space to guest companies such as the Signature Theatre and LAByrinth Theater, Wolfe, 49, has directed a number of the Public’s most significant productions. In addition to Topdog and Caroline, two of his more recent successes, he staged Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk with Savion Glover, a Tempest starring Patrick Stewart, and Elaine Stritch at Liberty—all Broadway transfers.
Indeed, the worst thing anybody has had to say about Wolfe’s nearly dozen years at the Public’s helm—though rarely for attribution—is that his own ambitions as director have drawn too much of his attention, and too many of the institution’s resources, away from the rest of the theater. One result, critics charge, has been a shrinkage in the number of new productions. Seldom are all of the stages active; sometimes the place has felt like a ghost town.
His two Broadway flops—the 1998 revival of On the Town and the 2000 collaboration with the composer Michael John LaChiusa on The Wild Party—which together lost more than $10 million, have repeatedly been taken up as cudgels, especially by The New York Times, though other transfers have proved profitable. Only a few years after relentlessly hounding Akalaitis and encouraging her ouster in favor of a producer like Wolfe who would create more crossover hits, the Times began beating up on Wolfe for trying to do precisely that. Singling out Wolfe for attack, the Times even devoted a 2000 story to unsubstantiated rumors that the board was about to fire him for financial mismanagement; in contrast, the paper of record never bludgeoned, for example, Lincoln Center’s André Bishop for his megabuck failures.
The reasons, of course, are many, not least that the Public, as the most civic of New York’s theaters, the one that most seems to belong to the community, remains most open to attack. Second, in an increasingly tight economic climate, with mounting pressure on a not-for-profit institution to create sources of revenue, the pursuit of a holy cash cow seems unavoidable. Box office downtown draws only some 10 percent of the Public’s income, Wolfe notes, and finding ways to finance the place “is a Herculean task.” The effort famously imperiled Wolfe’s health—his kidney failed in 1997, and he quietly endured dialysis treatment until a transplant from his older brother a year later put him back on all cylinders. With the addition of Mara Manus as executive director in 2002, the Public has recovered fiscally as well. “The budget is balanced,” says board member Gail Merrifield Papp, wife of the late Joe Papp. “George not only built on Joe’s legacy, giving a home to artists and doing new and classical works, he also leaves things in good financial condition.” But whether the board will reconsider the priority of sending shows uptown as it seeks a replacement for Wolfe remains to be seen. Mark Russell, who recently announced his own resignation after two decades as executive director of P.S.122, the experimental performance space just a few blocks from the Public, sees the landscape changing drastically and hopes, he says, that the board “will be open to new models for this complex time and not just look for someone who can bring them to Broadway again and again.” Gail Papp says the board search committee has of yet neither met nor hired a search firm.
There’s one more theory about the special scrutiny Wolfe attracted, and it’s related to what may be the greatest institutional legacy he leaves. As Kushner sees it, the singularly relentless insinuations about fiscal mismanagement were “just plain racism,” as are the failures to understand the universal importance of how “season by season by season, the Public has resembled America much more than any other major nonprofit in the country.”
On the one hand, having grown up in Frankfort, Kentucky, Wolfe says that as a “child of segregation,” he brought with him the principle that if one is able to get in the door, he has the responsibility to “let other people in the room.” At the same time, though, he bristles at the word “multicultural,” preferring instead to talk about “reality.” He has frequently pointed out that when Joe Papp presented, say, Ntozake Shange or Larry Kramer, he was regarded as a forward-thinking producer; but when Wolfe, as a gay African American man, produced Parks or Richard Greenberg (whose gay locker-room drama, Take Me Out, was another successful Broadway transfer), he was scorned for “having an agenda.”
The critic Robert Brustein, for one, has upbraided Wolfe for placing political mission above aesthetic judgment by producing artists of color whose works have been less than brilliant. That misses the point. It’s easy to praise Wolfe’s unflagging support for Parks, but he has been just as stalwart in making space for less prodigious artists of color. It’s the same principle that led him to present middling works by Sam Shepard and David Mamet: commitment to artists.
“The mainstream has had to adjust,” says Wolfe, as he catches his breath for a moment to think about his proudest achievement. “I have tried to create a space where artists can feel secure about their vision, a place they can emerge from stronger and tougher and braver than when they started.”