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George C. Wolfe leaving New York’s Public Theater

His guidance gave birth to shows like ‘Topdog/Underdog’
/ Source: The Associated Press

George C. Wolfe is leaving as head of the Public Theater, one of the country’s foremost nonprofit theaters — an institution that under his guidance gave birth to such shows as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” and “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.”

Wolfe, who announced his resignation Wednesday, will depart the Public sometime during the 2004-05 theater season.

“It’s something that I have been thinking about for some time,” Wolfe said Wednesday in an interview, adding that what he wants to do now is write.

“I love the job, especially nurturing and feeding artists, but every single dynamic has another consequence, and I haven’t been able to carve out the amount of isolated time that it takes to write,” he explained.

Wolfe, who has held the job as producer since 1993, will leave on a high note, stepping down at a time when the Public seems to be recovering from its artistic and financial stumbles of several years ago. Besides “Topdog/Underdog,” Wolfe has presented and/or directed such recent popular shows as “‘Take Me Out,” “Elaine Stritch At Liberty,” and “Caroline, or Change.”

“Things at the theater are now in an incredibly positive place, the work is going well and the institution is financially very solvent,” Wolfe said. “It seemed like the right time to do it. Now I can move on.”

It wasn’t always so. The Public had back-to-back flops on Broadway: a revival of “On The Town” and “The Wild Party,” both directed by Wolfe. Together, the two shows lost an estimated $11 million, with the Public footing most of the bill.

And the theater, founded in 1954 by the legendary Joseph Papp, was plagued by other problems, including staff layoffs and the departure of several influential board members. In recent years, the theater has reduced its annual summer Shakespeare productions in Central Park from two to one.

The 49-year-old Wolfe first worked at the Public in 1986 as a playwright, author of “The Colored Museum,” a sharply satiric work that poked fun at such reverential black dramas as “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Wolfe also gained success as a commercial director, overseeing such Broadway hits as “Jelly’s Last Jam,” a musical about Jelly Roll Morton starring Gregory Hines, and “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s mammoth, two-part look at AIDS in the Reagan era.

This spring, he will oversee the transfer of “Caroline, or Change,” the Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical, to Broadway. Before that, however, he will direct his first feature film, an adaptation for HBO of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s childhood memoir “Lackawanna Blues,” which was done at the Public in 2001.

Wolfe said he will remain as a board member and will direct a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park in the summer of 2005.

“My leaving depends on the results of the board’s search for my replacement,” Wolfe said. “I’ve already planned next season. I just want to be sure there is a correct handoff. It’s a phasing out if you will.”