Facing New Economic Climate, Public Theater Trims Staff by 15 Percent

News   Facing New Economic Climate, Public Theater Trims Staff by 15 Percent In a dramatic illustration that New York City's cultural institutions are still feeling the rippling effects of Sept. 11 and the economic turmoil the terrorist assault has engendered, the Public Theater has laid off fully 15 percent of its 70-plus-strong administrative staff.
Elaine Stritch, currently At Liberty at the Public Theatre.
Elaine Stritch, currently At Liberty at the Public Theatre.

In a dramatic illustration that New York City's cultural institutions are still feeling the rippling effects of Sept. 11 and the economic turmoil the terrorist assault has engendered, the Public Theater has laid off fully 15 percent of its 70-plus-strong administrative staff.

The nonprofit Public was recently hit with a deep cut in city funding. According to a spokesman for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in early October the Mayor's office informed the agency it would be sheared of 15 percent of its budget, a reduction which will be handed down to the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), a collection of 34 museums, theatres and other loci of art and culture which are housed in city-owned buildings across the metropolis. Among those three dozen are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Public Theater.

The city official stressed that the cut in the CIG was not yet official. Neither is it known how and to whom such a reduction in funds would be applied. Still, the Public Theater has already taken action. Artistic director George C. Wolfe said the CIG cut only partly influenced the move to prune the staff. "It was that combined with the performance of the stock market [since Sept. 11], combined with the outlook in funding. In this climate, funding starts to be cut back and those cuts tend to come first in social services and culture. It's a new world out there." What the 15 percent decrease meant to the Public in real numbers could not be immediately learned.

The destruction of the World Trade Center had an immediate impact on the theatre world. Broadway, after shutting down for two days, reopened to find that jarred New York theatregoers were staying home and tourists were steering clear of the airlines that daily bring out-of-towners to Times Square. Panicked by a plummeting box office, Broadway producers sought and won a month's worth of concessions from the theatrical unions. Though Rialto revenues have rebounded since then, many backers are still skittish about Broadway's prospects during the tough winter months.

More than depleted audiences, a bigger danger for the nonprofit world is a likely drying up of foundation and grant monies. Many corporations were directly and indirectly hit by the events of Sept. 11 and are now combatting financial woes by reigning in monetary gifts to the art world. Theatre professionals expect a shrinking purse for nonprofits—a trend which may possibly stretch over the next few years. Just last week, the Guggenheim Museum, citing low attendance, announced staff layoffs. Whether the Public's current financial woes will result in fewer productions, Wolfe could not say. "That remains to be seen," he said. "Unfortunately and ironically, this all comes at the time we have this big hit, but one can't control such things." Wolfe was referring to actress Elaine Stritch's one-woman show At Liberty, which extended after winning rave reviews and is looking at a possible Broadway transfer next year. "There's a tremendous amount of interest, but a finite number of houses on Broadway," said Wolfe. "We're talking every day." Also possible for Broadway next year is Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, a hit at the Public last summer. More, the theatre's upcoming staging of Othello, starring Liev Schreiber and Keith David, is selling out.

The Public and Wolfe were in the news a month ago when two of the theatre's largest donors, Larry E. Condon of the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, and Dorothy Cullman, resigned from the board. Both gave as their reason the company's poor fiscal management, according to a report in the New York Times.

Condon was particularly upset by the recent departure of Fran Reiter, the former deputy mayor of New York and, said Cullman, a good friend of Condon. Reiter, a politician with no notable background in theatre, was appointed in November 2000 at the urging of Condon. Her title was executive director, a position meant to be the administrative counterpart to Wolfe, with both sharing power equally.

Wolfe said a committee had been formed to find a replacement for Reiter.

Since suffering a couple of high-profile commercial setbacks, when two expensive musicals—a 1998 revival of On the Town and Michael John LaChuisa's The Wild Party in 2000—failed to catch fire on Broadway, Wolfe has been under fire, from members of his board, as well as from certain press organs, notably The New York Times.

Wolfe said the decision about the current retrenchment was made independently of Condon and Cullman's exit, observing "It's a bigger picture." Recently, two board members have been added: architect and set designer (The Rocky Horror Show) David Rockwell and restauranteur and hotelier Andre Balasz.

The Brooklyn Academy of Arts has also been hurt by the CIG cut. A spokesperson for the institution—which frequently imports prestigious productions from England, France and elsewhere, and annually presents the avant-garde Next Wave Festival—said the 15 percent cut spells a loss of $1 million, one-twentieth of BAM's budget. So far, no staff positions have been lost.

—By Robert Simonson