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Restoring New York's Shakespeare Festival to center stage


NEW YORK -- It was about a month ago, George C. Wolfe recalled, that he was asked by the executive committee of the New York Shakespeare Festival's board if he'd be interested in taking over the reins of the institution from JoAnne Akalaitis. He was. Then they asked him what he'd do with it.

"I told them what I'm passionate about," he said in an interview. "I said you can't create an oasis for writers but you can create a home for them. You can say to someone, 'I like your play; I'm going to produce it.' And then when the play is falling apart in previews, you can say, 'I'm going to produce your next play.' In New York, everyone wants a new virgin they can put on display, but careers happen over time, by feeding and nurturing. That's where you get brilliant work."

He also spoke to the committee about establishing a working environment for actors, where the polished and experienced work in tandem with the youthful and promising "so there's a passing on of information and technique." And he spoke about producing a regular program of classics and of his "overriding passion" for diversity in programming and casting.

"We've got to create a theater that looks, feels, and smells like America," he said. "You don't wait until February to discover Negroes. You don't do Latin writers for a week.

"Of course, this is very idealistic and romantic," he said. "But I haven't started yet. It's the time to be idealistic and romantic."

Romance and idealism are, unfortunately, only a couple of the requirements of the task Mr. Wolfe assumed with the board's announcement of his appointment March 15. He will, the board hopes, restore the vibrancy and eminence of the festival and its primary venue, the Joseph Papp Public Theater, that many felt had been dissipated since Papp's death in October 1991. Like Ms. Akalaitis, Mr. Wolfe comes to his new post with estimable credits as an artist, but few as producer and none as administrator or fund-raiser.

He is taking the reins of an institution that has been running at a deficit for eight years, and whose reserve fund -- largely the money earned by "A Chorus Line" which the Shakespeare Festival produced -- has dipped from $19 million to about $15 million since 1985.

"The fiscal picture is sobering but not fatal," said Larry E. Condon, the chairman of the board's executive committee.

A three-year-budget, enacted by the board in 1992 in response to the institution's slipping fortunes, cut administrative expenses by 40 percent and staff by 50 percent, though at the same time the budget for productions was increased slightly, the idea being that it is what the festival puts on the stage that draws not only audiences but also corporate and private donor interest. To put it another way, the more excitement the place generates, the more people with money want to be associated with it.

Board members confirmed, though not for attribution, that one reason they soured on Ms. Akalaitis was that her artistic choices did not create that kind of buzz. Of course it remains to be seen whether Mr. Wolfe's choices as producer will prove more economically prudent, more multifarious, or more ingratiating. But already there are signs that philanthropic sources have perked up.

Mr. Condon said the committee briefly considered candidates other than Mr. Wolfe. "But there was no one else we approached directly," he said. "We looked at his work historically; we looked at his recent work. And Joe [Papp] had wanted George to have a role at the Public. He'd wanted him to have a theater. It's important to put the Joe connection in there. Ultimately the choice was quite natural."

But it isn't as though he needed the job. Mr. Wolfe, who is 38, already had plenty on his plate.

He has been spending his days lately directing rehearsals of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's long-awaited play, part one of which opens on Broadway next month, and many of his nights finishing the editing of "Fires in the Mirror," a film version of Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show he's directing for American Playhouse.

Then there are the cast changes in "Jelly's Last Jam," the Broadway musical he wrote and directed. Mr. Wolfe has been helping Ben Vereen and Brian Mitchell -- who are replacing Keith David and Gregory Hines, respectively, over the next several weeks -- get ready for their roles.

"January, February, March, have been this vrrrooom!" Mr. Wolfe said, using, characteristically, an onomatopoeic plosion to make a point, and punctuating it with a sweeping hand gesture meant to approximate a whirlwind.

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