The New York Shakespeare Festival board is expected to change the name of the Public Theater to the Joseph Papp Public Theater when it meets Nov. 13, in tribute to the group’s founder, who died Oct. 31. But the directors are also likely to decide the fate of an endangered project that was close to Papp’s heart.

The 15-year-old Festival Latino, run from the outset by Oscar Ciccione and Cecilia Vega, has produced Spanish-language shows every August at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, film festivals at the Public and Spanish-language productions that have occasionally toured outside the city. Its annual budget is $1 million to $2 million.

Papp often cited the program as a key Shakespeare Festival constituent. Last summer, Festival Latino co-produced the highly publicized Free Shakespeare in Central Park series.

By July, however, the Latin festival already had been deleted from the 1992 Shakespeare Festival budget, as part of a $3 million reduction, from $13.5 million to $10.5 million.

Trimming sails

Faced with a growing financial crisis, the Shakespeare Festival has, during the last year, shuttered in-house production shops, let go almost 50 people, cut annual productions from 12 to six and is co-producing more shows with other groups.

Nevertheless, Festival Latino was the only program dropped completely. The move has been condemned in New York’s Spanish-language press by Mayor David N. Dinkins and former city public schools head Nathan Quinones, among others.

Cohen and Akalaitis vigorously dispute Vega and Ciccione’s version of events. Festival Latino was dropped from the budget last spring at Papp’s insistence, Cohen says, because Papp hoped to raise money for the program on his own. But Papp’s deteriorating health prevented him from personal efforts to save Festival Latino.

Cohen said that the Shakespeare Festival had to pay about $300,000 per year to offset Festival Latino’s deficit. A 20-year Shakespeare Festival veteran, he insisted that, whatever the fate of Festival Latino, a strong Latin presence at the theater would be maintained.

Shakespeare Festival and other sources added that Festival Latino had been in danger of losing key funding, particularly from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had underwritten the program to the tune of as much as $250,000 per year. The foundation, the sources said, was frustrated by Ciccione and Vega’s reluctance or inability to broaden the festival’s work beyond New York City.

Suzanne Sato, the Rockefeller Foundation executive responsible for theater grants, said that no decision had been made about Festival Latino when the Shakespeare Festival budget was approved.

But, she added, “We don’t do anything forever,” and a reduction last year of the Latin fest’s grant, from $250,000 to $200,000, “was a signal that they couldn’t expect the same money when they were presenting fewer groups and no touring.”

Several key Public Theater staff members who have worked with Festival Latino acknowledged that, though problems existed with the program, its achievements were unassailable.

Nevertheless, a bitter aftertaste remains among the Festival Latino staff. On Oct. 15, Quinones made a personal appeal to the board on behalf of the program.

In the meantime, Cohen and new artistic director JoAnne Akalaitis are still performing fiscal triage with Cohen. “We are trying to figure out what kind of Latino presence there will be at the Public,” Akalaitis said last week. “I don’t know yet.” But she acknowledged that “nobody else got cut out. I’m not so sure, in retrospect, it was the right thing to do.”

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