Wolfe's Exit Is Latest in Spate of Nonprofit Leader Departures

News   Wolfe's Exit Is Latest in Spate of Nonprofit Leader Departures
George C. Wolfe, producer of the Public Theater, may be the most noteworthy American nonprofit theatre head to announce his departure in the 2003-2004 season, but he is by no means the only leader to make for the exit.

Since the season commenced, institutional theatres have experienced a steady exodus of front-office talent.

The downtown Manhattan scene was rocked in December when Mark Russell, who made the spirited nonprofit P.S. 122 one of the most important and influential venues of the downtown theatre scene, resigned as artistic director after 20 years at the helm.

Earlier that fall, in October, Michael Ritchie took a job as the new artistic director of Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group, overseeing the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and the new Kirk Douglas Theatre. In doing so, he left behind the Williamstown Theatre Festival, perhaps the most prestigious summer theatre in the U.S., where he has been artistic director since 1996.

More acrimonious was the sudden leaving of Michael Bush as the producing artistic director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Bush left New York theatre in June 2002 to head up North Carolina's major resident theatre. He arrived with high artistic ambitions, but handed in his resignation after a year and a half, saying his efforts were not supported by the community.

In January, Donovan Marley, a 21-season veteran of the Denver Center Theatre Company, said he would step down in 2005. Soon after, Howard Millman, producing artistic director of the Asolo Theatre Company since 1995, chose to announce his exit. Marley and Millman's departures were simple questions of retirement after years of service. But Wolfe, Bush and Russell left companies that had experienced troubling financial situations in the seasons since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—a time of economic downturn when audiences began staying home more frequently, and funding organizations and agencies started limiting their contributions to nonprofits.

"It continues to be, across the board, a challenging time," said Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre in Boston and the president of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). "There are pockets where things are going well. But it's difficult to makes things work across the country."

Maso said that LORT members have told him that funding from government, corporate and small donors continues to be flat. "Those [donations] are not back," he said, adding, "In some parts of the country, the tickets sales are still down."

Don Guarnieri, P.S. 122's board president, said the company had previously culled much of its trade from "walk ups," the fickle, impetuous theatregoers who see shows on the spur of the moment. That model is no longer working. "We haven't been good at marketing and pre-selling those shows," he said. "I've got to see people in the seats."

Bush said, upon his resignation, "Unfortunately, I have come to the realization that there is just not enough support to do the work I was brought here to do." New works (Let Me Sing, All of the People, All of the Time), star-spiked shows (the pre-Broadway The Miracle Worker starring Hilary Swank, the recent 20th anniversary Pump Boys and Dinettes with Emily Skinner) and stagings of recent and classic plays were part of Bush's short tenure. Mike McGuire, president of the Rep's board, said that while the trustees will continue to advance the artistic direction of the Rep, the board felt more financial management oversight was necessary to better balance the artistic product with financial accountability.

Meanwhile, artistic directors who remain in place must exercise a precarious budget balancing act. To keep finances in the black, seasons are stuffed with cheap-to-produce one or two-person shows and co-productions between two, three, and sometimes four nonprofit companies (one of them often a Manhattan-based troupe). A few recent examples include The Story, which hopped from the Public to Long Wharf; and Second Stage's Wintertime, which came to Off-Broadway from New Jersey's McCarter Theatre.

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