Coming off what, by any perspective, was an enormously successful season artistically, the Public Theater is now looking to put its administrative house in order.
Mara Manus, 42, has been named the Public's new executive director, filling a slot vacated by former New York City official and mayoral candidate Fran Reiter, who departed last fall after nine months on the job, citing difficulties in working with producer George C. Wolfe. Wolfe, who has headed the Public for nearly a decade, is universally regarded as a man of uncommon artistic daring and brilliance, but not one easily willing or able to cede or share power.
Manus' appointment appears to be another attempt at coercing Wolfe to do so. The New York native is well known in both nonprofit and entertainment industry circles; she's been both an executive at MCA/Universal Pictures as well as president and executive director of Chrysalis, an L.A.-based nonprofit that enables disadvantaged people to rejoin the workforce. Manus is currently a program officer for economic development at the Ford Foundation, one of the nation's largest charitable organizations and one that assiduously supports the arts.
In a statement, Wolfe said, "I'm very pleased with the selection of Mara. She joins the institution at an especially exciting time, following one of our most successful seasons. As the institution continues to expand artistic boundaries and increase fiscal solvency, her spirit, intelligence, and wide range of experience are truly welcome."
But the topsy-turvy travails of the Public's most recent seasons suggest that Manus' appointment comes at a critical time. Beyond Reiter's departure and the unpleasant stepping-down of two of the theatre's senior board members due to managerial disagreements, the Public suffered a $14 million loss during the 2000-2001 season when two of its Broadway productions—Michael John LaChuisa's "The Wild Party" and Wolfe's revival of "On the Town"—tanked at the box office following devastatingly negative reviews.
Which is one reason why Wolfe allowed outside producers to mount the two shows that successfully transferred to Broadway this season: Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Under-dog," which took the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and "Elaine Stritch At Liberty," which captured the Tony for special theatrical event. And with almost $1 million in deficits predicted for the Public for at least several seasons, this summer becomes the first time since 1980, when Joseph Papp only mounted "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, that the Public will present a single show of free summer Shakespeare. "Twelfth Night," which stars Julia ("O" and "Hamlet") Stiles, Jimmy ("NYPD Blue") Smits, and Kristen ("3rd Rock") Johnston, features music by Duncan Sheik and began performances June 25.