NEW YORK — Perhaps the most surprising aspect of George C. Wolfe’s new organizational chart for the New York Shakespeare Festival has nothing to do with layoffs, marketing, hurt feelings or optimism — although each of these plays a decided role in the offstage drama currently unfolding downtown.
No, the most surprising thing might just be that an organizational chart exists at all. Even if Joseph Papp had put pen to paper and formalized his shoot-from-the-hip approach, the chart would have looked something like a flower or star, says a current staff member, with all branches leading directly to the center, i.e., Papp himself.
Wolfe’s methodical restructuring of the Festival, which last week resulted in the layoffs of four longtime employees, seems more hierarchical and ladder-like, and the internal shuffling is prompting both the insecurity that comes with any major shake-up and hope that what emerges in the long run will be stronger and more stable.
“It’s pretty depressed,” says a staffer, one of several who would speak only anonymously. Wolfe, who replaced artistic director JoAnne Akalaitis and took the title of producer when he started full-time three months ago, “feels the place doesn’t work very well,” another staffer says.
But if the restructuring turmoil is causing some bruises on Lafayette Street, it is likewise prompting some of the most optimistic musings about the Public in years. George Lane, William Morris’s chief legit agent, says his office is a strong supporter of Wolfe and calls the artistic director’s focus on new writers and audiences “most refreshing.”
Even staffers at the center of the reorganization hurricane applaud Wolfe’s goals of reaching new audiences and developing new playwrights. One legit insider sums up the situation with a telling description of Wolfe: He has “the sensibility of an artist, but as an administrator is very militaristic. There’s nothing dilettante-ish about this man, nothing bureaucratic about him.”
Thus the Public finds itself in what is beginning to seem like a never-ending state of flux. The restructuring has rocked the Festival as have Wolfe’s maddening schedule (he’s directing Broadway’s “Perestroika,” the second half of “Angels in America”) and, tragically, the recent suicide of the theater’s publicist, Bruce Campbell.
“Perestroika” has been consuming much of Wolfe’s attention lately; the director was unavailable for interviews due to rehearsals. Sources say playwright Tony Kushner was knee-deep in rewrites as recently as two weeks ago, and the play’s five acts include pages of difficult-to-stage simultaneous dialogue. “George is overwhelmed by ‘Perestroika,’ ” says an insider.”Perestroika” beginspreviews Oct. 4 and opens Nov. 11, and while Wolfe will spend much of his time at the Walter Kerr Theater until then, he has certainly put in motion at least some of what he hopes to accomplish at the Public.
The producer has plans for each of the Public’s five theaters: The 170-seat Martinson Hall will house experimental plays; the 275-seat Anspacher Theater might be used for classical productions; the 160-seat LuEsther Hall will be used for developmental work; the 99-seat Susan Stein Shiva Theater could be home to solo performers; and the Public’s largest theater, the 299-seat Estelle R. Newman, could house the festival’s more main-stream or large-scale works.
Among the shows under discussion for this season are Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” at the Newman and Martin Crimp’s “The Treatment,” also at the Newman.
If Wolfe is being tight-lipped with regard to the entirety of his vision — even plugged-in staffers say they’re not privy to all of his plans — his recent hirings and firings provide some clues.
The most recent round of layoffs included Papp’s veteran executive assistant, Barbara Carroll, production manager Mervyn Haines and his assistant, and the Festival’s longtime receptionist.
Four new employees were brought in, but not to replace the outgoing staff. The NYSF’s shrinking annual budget –$ 10 million last year, $ 9.4 million this year — wouldn’t accommodate the creation of new positions without eliminating old ones. Even some staffers say Papp was “very open-handed with salaries and benefits,” and the organization needed trimming for survival in the ’90s.
Morgan Jenness, a Papp alumnus who most recently worked with the now-defunct Los Angeles Theater Center, has been hired for the new position of director of play development.
Wolfe also has brought in Shelby Jiggetts from Lincoln Center as literary manager, and hired Wiley Hausam, Wolfe’s ally and agent from ICM, as director of special projects.
Wolfe plans to hire an in-house marketing director, the festival’s first, to develop new audiences — a goal that combines the theater’s financial needs and Wolfe’s political agenda of reaching new markets.
“George has a very strong political agenda and wants people without a theater-going tradition to come to our theaters,” the staffer says. “That’s the battle we have to fight.”