Two Major Donors Resign from Public Theater's Board

News   Two Major Donors Resign from Public Theater's Board Two of the Public Theater's largest donors, Larry E. Condon of the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, and Dorothy Cullman, have resigned from the Off-Broadway theatre's board. Both gave as their reason the company's poor fiscal management, according to a report in the New York Times.
Jeffrey Wright, Suzan Lori-Parks and Don Cheadle, whose Topdog/Underdog is expected on Broadway in Spring, 2002.
Jeffrey Wright, Suzan Lori-Parks and Don Cheadle, whose Topdog/Underdog is expected on Broadway in Spring, 2002. (Photo by Photo by Aubrey Rueben)

Two of the Public Theater's largest donors, Larry E. Condon of the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, and Dorothy Cullman, have resigned from the Off-Broadway theatre's board. Both gave as their reason the company's poor fiscal management, according to a report in the New York Times.

The Public suffered 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. Both were directed by the Public's artistic director, George C. Wolfe, a highly lauded director who has sometimes been criticized for a controlling management style and a disregard for the bottom line.

Cullman, who said she has known Condon for nearly a decade, told Playbill On-Line "There would be no Public Theater without Larry Condon. George Wolfe is a great talent. But Larry had to be considered first. Without his support, the theatre wouldn't exist."

Condon, whose trust has given the Public $2 million a year, said, "I thought the institutional issues were not being addressed. And I didn't agree with the attention to management needs." Condon could be reached for comment at press time.

In citing management needs, Condon was probably referring, in part, to 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. By most accounts, the two failed to mesh from the very start. Kenneth B. Lerer, the chairman of the Public's board, told the Times Reiter's position would be refilled. He also rushed to the defense of Wolfe, calling him a "terrifically strong artist."

"I firmly believe the executive director position is a good thing for the institution," Wolfe told the Times. "It isn't like I want to do everything. I can't do everything."

Ironically, the shake-up comes at a time when the Public's fortunes are on the upswing. The Central Park summer production of The Seagull, starring Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols, was the most visible theatrical event of this past year. Topdog/Underdog, the latest drama from Public mainstay, Suzan Lori Parks (which Wolfe directed), is expected to come to Broadway this season. And the first show of the Public's new season, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, a autobiographical show by and starring the legendary actress, is a top candidate for extension and possible commercial transfer.

The Public Theater fiscal year runs Sept. 1-Aug. 31, meaning the upcoming season has already been approved by the 33-member board and will not be affected by the new resignations. It is not clear whether Condon and Cullman's departures actually results in a withdrawal of actual funds or a depletion of the Public's annual budget.

Cullman said she and her husband, Lewis, have donated roughly $2 to $3 million during her tenure on the board, though she could not quote an exact figure with certainty. Asked if her resignation spelled the end of Cullman support of the Public, she said, "I have to speak to my lawyer. We made a pledge, but I don't know if it's valid or invalid given the circumstances."

She added that she and Condon might consider returning to the Public fold is a candidate to their liking was named to the executive director post. "If it pleased Mr. Condon and me—yes. But it would have to please both of us."

Wolfe was appointed artistic director of the Public two years after the death of the theatre's founder, Joseph Papp, and after the brief and unpopular reign of Joanne Akalaitis. He went on to stage such early successes as Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk and The Tempest.

— By Robert Simonson