A Vision for American Stage: Embrace the Complexity of Culture


Thanks to George C. Wolfe's leadership, a revolutionary development in the history of musical theater will take place when "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" opens at the Ambassador Theatre on April 9.

This marks the third time a show originating at the Public Theater has succeeded in moving to Broadway since Wolfe took over as the Public's producer in 1993.

Because he is the successful, Pulitzer-winning playwright of "A Colored Museum" and the Tony-winning director of the gay-themed "Angels in America," he brings credibility to his stated mission: "I want the theater to help transform American culture."

"I can walk into a whole bunch of different rooms and feel like I belong there. And people in those rooms talk like I belong there," he says. "So I can attract a whole array of artists and at the same time bring in audiences."

Wolfe's acceptance of the producing position one year after the death of Joseph Papp, the Public Theater's legendary producer, ended a troubled period when little new work was being generated there. Wolfe's tenure has resulted in a $1.5 million increase in contributed income and a boost in box-office revenues of nearly $500,000.

Attendance at the Public's five theater spaces and its summer Shakespeare in the Park series jumped by more than 60,000. And the number of subscribers is at an all-time high. (Comparative figures for revenues and attendance are unavailable.)

"If you're an artist and a cultural institution, you have to be very smart in these very complicated times, when the country has declared war on culture," Wolfe says. His vision for expanding the role of theater "to form as many exciting and interesting alliances as we can," begins with the selection of plays to be produced.

"I would look for these different plays so that a black audience will come and see this, and a white uptown audience will come and see this, and a gay audience will come and see this, and they'll all meet each other in the lobby. And what's happened with 'The Tempest' [starring Patrick Stewart] and unquestionably with 'Bring in 'da Noise' is that all these different people have started going to the same show."

Referring to three shows he directed - Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles," "Tempest," and "Bring in 'da Noise" - as well as other entries he brought to the theater's lineup, he adds, "I'm interested in taking elitist culture and finding its populist base, but not killing off the elitist thought process. I'm interested in taking populist culture and highlighting the more elitist components. I'm not interested in that ground in the middle."

Wolfe sees American theater as at a crucial juncture. People in the theater are dealing with issues of financial survival, audience renewal, and cultural relevance. He observes that many in the theater community have not addressed the serious consequences of avoiding today's realities, of "living inside a remembrance of what was."

He recalls his earlier associations with the Public in the late 1980s as a sometime director and contributor, when Papp was ill.

"I became aware of how crippling nostalgia can be. The house is on fire, and someone is saying, 'Remember when that house had lilies all around it.' It's like a bad monologue from Tennessee Williams.

"And this is also true about New York theater. There are very serious issues on the line, and then there is this nostalgia, which is a scary thing."

Wolfe, who spent four years at the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles before moving to New York, points out that many new works, and emerging artists, get their start in tiny nonprofit theaters.

"The economic reality is so bleak with the funding cuts. These little Off Off Broadway theaters have maybe one or two people fund-raising, building, and running the theaters, doing everything.

"The Public will survive. Lincoln Center will survive. But the ecology of creativity is very, very fragile. If you kill a whole bunch of those smaller little theaters over a period of three, four, five years, the larger theaters everywhere will feel the impact, just in terms of talent."

The role of the Public in American culture has been overwhelming in its influence. It's the place that gave birth to "Hair," "A Chorus Line," and the Shakespeare in the Park series, which will eventually produce every play he wrote; it was also the launching pad for actors such as Raul Julia and Kevin Kline. And Wolfe has been aware of that legacy since he started.

"Joe [Papp] looked around and saw what was missing, and crafted a theater that was reflective of that. So when I came on board, I looked around in the '90s, which is a very different thing than Joe looking around in the '60s, and tried to figure out what was still missing."

In the interim year after Papp's death, the institution seemed to languish.

"What I realized," Wolfe continues, "is that nobody had taken over, for lack of a better word, the throne that the Public had, so we had a whole lot of work to do to get it back, in terms of embracing the complexity of this city, which is in turn embracing the complexity of the world."

He appointed a director of community affairs and group sales, Donna Walker-Collins, whose mission was to make the Public more welcoming to the city's black, Hispanic, and Asian citizens. He expanded the programs that go into the schools. And Wolfe extended an invitation to the fledgling Signature Theatre Company to house their productions, which revive the works of a living playwright for an entire year. (This season featured Adrienne Kennedy, and next year will focus on Sam Shepard.)

His vision for the future? "I want to nurture writers and find a comprehensive way of nurturing directors, because I don't really know who does that, and that desperately needs to be done, particularly American classical directors."

His scope widens to include "cultivating more musical-theater artists, because that's a fascinating form that needs to be freed of the past. I want to invite as many different kinds of composers and thinkers of musical theater into the Public, so we can play around and see what the form is.

"And," he concludes emphatically, "I want to reach as many people as we possibly can."

The biggest challenge in this seven-day-a-week position, Wolfe finds, is "protecting myself.... You can lose yourself, and for about two years, I did." When a director could not be found to shape and develop Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles," Wolfe stepped in.

"It turned out to be a wonderful collaboration. And I went through the entire summer not taking a break." He takes a deep breath and adds, "I realized that ... if I did not protect myself, I would not last long here."

He began work on a new play, bringing him back to the creative outlet that first brought him to public attention: his shattering work, "The Colored Museum." "If I can finish this new play, I will stay at the Public Theater. If not, I have to assess how much it's going to damage me as an artist."

"American culture is a phenomenal thing. Even when it's dumb and stupid and cheap, it still has a certain energy that is informed by the complexity of the people who comprise society.

"And I love celebrating that complexity, simply because it is just who we are."

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