Biz abuzz over candidates to succeed producer Wolfe

The decision is many months away. A committee has just been formed, and a firm has yet to be tapped to implement its wishes. But the theater industry already is buzzing about potential successors to George C. Wolfe at the Public Theater.

The availability of one of the most prominent posts in the Gotham theater world has inspired the parlor game of the moment at theatrical dinner tables. Speculation — and lists of possible candidates — are beginning to make the papers and fuel Internet chatter.

Variety‘s informal survey of prominent theater players reveals plenty of names and plenty of unasked-for advice. Herewith, a rundown of many of the potential candidates being discussed, as well as the thinking about what the Public will be seeking to emphasize — or should be — as it looks to replace Wolfe, whose decadelong tenure was not without its controversies.

Industry watchers tend to agree that the most obvious candidates are current and former artistic directors of the country’s not-for-profit institutional theaters: “You need somebody who can run a sizable organization with a large budget,” says a producer.

This large field of candidates can itself be divided in various ways: The New Yorkers and the regionals, or the directors vs. the producers.

Artistic directors with specific Gotham experience are fairly rare, which may be one reason why James Nicola, chief of the New York Theater Workshop, has been among those most frequently mentioned.

“He’s downtown already and has been at the head of his theater for quite a while,” says a fellow Gotham artistic director. “And the company is known for doing new work,” which is central to the Public’s mission. Another mark in his favor: Nicola worked at the Public.

And, according to some, another favorable factor is that Nicola, unlike Wolfe and many other candidates mentioned, does not himself direct. “They should find someone who isn’t going to have to balance their own artistic agenda with that of the theater,” says one producer.

Most of the other chiefs of the city’s not-for-profit theaters are firmly ensconced in or identified with their theaters, and most of the people polled believed the Public would be less inclined to tap someone strongly associated with another of the city’s major theaters. But Carole Rothman, of the Second Stage, and Tim Sanford, of Playwrights Horizons, are among the possibilities — and neither is a director.

The list of potential candidates from outside New York is a long one; most of these names are best known in New York for their directing work.

Several observers say a key factor in finding the right fit is personality: “They need a person with a big personality. Joe Papp had it; George had it,” says a top theater exec. “It’s not just a job for a competent administrator and artist. It’s a high-visibility post.”

For this exec, top candidates from the regionals, by those lights, would be Robert Falls, topper of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, and Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.

Both Falls and McAnuff could make the grade in terms of another important factor cited by several sources: an ability to “bridge the divide” between the not-for-profit world and the commercial theater (“if there still is one,” as one observer joked). Although Wolfe came in for criticism when the Public lost money on a couple of high-profile Broadway transfers, the necessity for the Public to maintain a presence in the commercial world, for both financial and PR reasons, isn’t disputed by most.

Both Falls and McAnuff have had significant success in transferring productions to Broadway — Falls with his revivals of “Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” McAnuff with “The Who’s Tommy” and a revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Another candidate with similar qualifications is Jack O’Brien, arguably Broadway’s hottest (and most versatile) director at the moment, with “Hairspray” and Lincoln Center Theater’s acclaimed “Henry IV” among his most recent credits. O’Brien has been the artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theater for 23 years. But with a burgeoning commercial directing career — and after so many years at the head of a not-for-profit — O’Brien might not want to undertake such a demanding post at this point in his career.

One possible strike against Falls, McAnuff and O’Brien: None has made his reputation by concentrating on new plays and emerging voices.

Other names mentioned with experience atop regional theaters: Daniel Sullivan, former chief of the Seattle Repertory Theater and director of many new plays in Gotham in recent years (“Proof,” “The Retreat From Moscow”); Nicholas Martin, currently head of Boston’s Huntington Theater Co., who works frequently in New York; and Joe Dowling, of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.

Among younger candidates (one observer believes youth, in such a demanding job, is a necessity): Doug Hughes, former chief of the Long Wharf Theater, who has directed for the Public and numerous other Gotham not-for-profits; Michael Greif, director of “Rent,” who ran the La Jolla Playhouse for several seasons and has directed at the Public; and Oskar Eustis, head of Trinity Rep, who commissioned and first directed “Angels in America.”

But virtually all of the aforementioned candidates are best known for their directing work — which, to some, is a strike against them.

More than half the industry observers polled argued the Public would be wiser to choose a producer rather than a director. (Wolfe’s title was producer, although it is the equivalent of other nonprofits’ artistic director role.)

“I’m assuming partly why George is leaving is because he could no longer reconcile the duties as a producer with his own needs as an artist,” as one put it. “That’s understandable; being an artistic director is a full-time job, especially with all those theaters to fill down there.” Wolfe was knocked for not keeping the theater full of activity, for which some blamed his immersion in his own projects.

But there aren’t a lot of producers being mentioned as strong candidates.

One exception: Robyn Goodman, who worked for many years with Papp before moving on to an indie producing career bridging both the not-for-profit and the commercial spheres.

“She’s a really, really good producer, with commitment and taste and judgement, plus good relationships,” says one enthusiast, a prominent commercial producer. But Goodman has of late been concentrating on commercial production (she is repped on Broadway by “Avenue Q”).

Other commercial producers mentioned include David Stone (“Wicked”) and even ex-Disney honcho Peter Schneider, who, before his lucrative tenure at Disney, worked in the not-for-profit theater world.

Above all, some think the search committee needs to keep an open mind, looking beyond the clear-cut candidates to other possibilities. One observer recalls that when Papp was looking for a successor, the group included actors such as Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. “How deep will they go in their search for an a.d.? Will they go to playwrights, actors?” he asks.

Philip Seymour Hoffman? Tony Kushner, anyone?

Robert Hofler contributed to this report.

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