Mara Manus, Executive Director, The Public Theater: Leading through Transition

June 1, 2004
Mara Manus, Executive Director, The Public Theater: Leading through Transition

The arts in New York City provide a substantial benefit to society and contribute significantly to the city's economy. According to the Alliance for the Arts, the total economic impact of the arts in New York in 1995 was $11.1 billion. Nonprofit theaters are an important part of that contribution, staging diverse productions in venues large and small, in addition to feeding the commercial theaters of Broadway, which in 1995 produced $1 billion in economic impact.

The New York Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp to present high-caliber Shakespeare productions to the public free of charge. From this origin grew Shakespeare in Central Park, and in 1966 Papp saved the historic Astor Library on Lafayette Street from demolition and created the Public Theater as a year-round home for the Shakespeare Festival and a venue for presenting classic and new work. Today the Public Theater boasts six stages, including the cabaret-style venue Joe's Pub, which presents two shows a night.

In April, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Mara Manus, executive director of the Public Theater, at her office in downtown Manhattan. Manus joined the Public in 2002 following a string of years that saw significant artistic achievements as well as significant institutional challenges. Among other things, the theater lost a much-noticed $11 million on two Broadway productions, which, to many, eclipsed the $9 million it netted on other Broadway shows.

Before joining the Public Theater, Manus served as an economic development program officer at the Ford Foundation; as executive director of Los Angeles-based Chrysalis, a job development nonprofit; and many years as a studio exec in Hollywood, including time as a senior vice president at Universal Studios.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is the mission of the Public Theater?

Mara Manus: The Public is an American theater that embraces the complexities of contemporary society and nurtures both artists and audiences through its commitment to theater as a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas.

PND: Can you give us a snapshot of the Public's budget, its venues, and how many productions it mounts each year?

MM: In comparison to other nonprofit theaters the Public has more moving parts. Opposed to the typical one to three stages, we have six. That includes Joe's Pub, our cabaret space, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. In addition, because we do Shakespeare in the Park, we work a twelve month season, rather than nine months, as most theaters do. We serve about two hundred thousand patrons each year, and surprisingly enough, some years we sell as many tickets to Joe's Pub as we do for the other five stages combined. Our budget is $11.5 million — it was $13 million at one point — and we have a full-time staff of 70 and up to 200 seasonal employees. Each year we produce five to seven productions downtown, and one to two in the park, and this year we're piloting Joe's Pub in the Park, to enhance the summer season.

PND: What's your funding mix?

MM: About 35 percent of our income is earned through ticket sales, and the rest is contributed. Of the contributed income, about $1 million is government funding and the rest, $6 million, is from individuals, corporations, and foundations. Our mix is unusual, and a challenge for us, because many nonprofit theaters derive 50 percent to 60 percent of their budget from earned income. The main reason for our dependence on contributions is the seven to eight weeks of free Shakespeare in the Park. It costs, surprisingly, $2 million to run one show for seven weeks, and $2.8 million to run two shows for fours weeks each.

PND: Does the city own your properties, the theater downtown as well as the Delacorte Theater in Central Park?

MM: Yes, in fact, we have a ninety-nine-year, $1 lease on the Lafayette Building, and a license agreement with the City Parks Department for the Delacorte Theater. The Public actually owned the downtown building we're in at one time, but when we could no longer keep it going, we offered the city the opportunity to buy it, which eventually got the city to recognize its value and include it in its Cultural Institutions Group. The CIG comprises thirty-four cultural institutions that occupy land or buildings owned by the city. The CIG's member institutions, which range from the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, to the Queens Theater in the Park, to Wave Hill in the Bronx, get their grant allocation from the city as a group. We meet monthly and exchange some good information and ideas.

PND: You've been a film studio executive, run a job development nonprofit in Los Angeles, and have been a program officer at the Ford Foundation. How has your professional experience prepared you for your current role?

MM: Mine has been one of the most unplanned careers of all time. At the Ford Foundation, our unit oversaw the work of program-related investments for the entire foundation. The Working Capital Fund, a long-term arts-stabilization program available to specific midsize arts institutions around the country, pairs working capital with intensive management consulting. This experience gave me the unique opportunity to be a grantmaker for economic development and also a loan officer, primarily in the arts.

When I was assigned that portfolio I thought, What do I know, what can I bring to work in the arts? And yet, as I became familiar with the work, I realized that the challenges and the problems facing cultural institutions rarely stem from the programming, but almost always were a result of mismanagement or a lack of proper management and governance. Their challenges were more or less the same challenges I had confronted running a nonprofit in L.A. And now that I'm a grantseeker, my experience at Ford is incredibly relevant.

"...essentially this job is about having strong nonprofit experience and the ability to work with artists...."

But essentially this job is about having strong nonprofit experience and the ability to work with artists. My time in Hollywood overlaps here because as a studio executive, I worked closely with artists. And managing and overseeing the development and production of feature films definitely has relevance to the production of theater. I'm drawing on skills that I didn't quite expect to, but the work with artists involves the same kind of dynamic.

PND: The Public relies on a co-leadership approach, with George Wolfe as the producer and artistic director, and you as executive director, responsible for the financial and administrative areas. How is that working out?

MM: That kind of structure is not unusual for nonprofit theaters, although it was a change for our theater. This is the first time the structure has worked with co-leaders. I do oversee specific areas, marketing and development, for example, which George doesn't have the same expertise in, just as I could never direct a play or develop a season. And while our respective job descriptions read "Mara does this and George does that," what I've learned in the last two years is that you really can't separate money from art. It's rare that a decision about art has no impact on our finances or institutional operations.

As a result, we work in an increasingly collaborative way, yet both of us know where the lines are drawn. I think that our success has less to do with our job descriptions than it does with the trust and development of a solid working relationship.

PND: Wolfe has announced that he will be stepping down next season. How will the board choose his successor, and what is the schedule for that transition?

MM: The board has assembled a search subcommittee, which I am an ex-officio member of, and has hired Albert Hall & Associates, an executive recruitment firm that specializes in nonprofit theater searches. While we've just started the process, we expect to be able to identify someone as George's successor within six months.

In the meantime, George has committed to staying and overseeing the transition, especially as we prepare for our fiftieth anniversary celebration, which will kick off next summer, when he will direct A Midsummer Night's Dream in the park. It's a significant milestone for us, especially when you consider that we have only had two long-term artistic directors, Joe Papp and George, in our entire history.

PND: So you expect the transition to be traumatic?

"...this is about transition, not about turmoil. And while any kind of change brings its own set of challenges, we're as prepared as we can be for George's departure...."

MM: The board and staff feel that had the announcement of George's departure happened two years ago, it would have been traumatic. But given the systems and structure we've implemented and the stability we've been able to achieve in the last few years, we're well positioned to sustain it. I tell everyone that this is about transition, not about turmoil. And while any kind of change brings its own set of challenges, organizationally we're as prepared as we can be for George's departure. George maintains deep ties to the organization; his relationship with the Public began in 1986 when Joe Papp produced his show The Colored Museum, and he will continue as part of the life of this theater for years to come.

PND: Can you tell us more about the financial and organizational challenges the Public faced in 2001?

MM: It's hard to separate the internal issues in 2001 at the Public from the external impact of 9/11 and the funding environment — for example, there were production losses and turnovers in key institutional leadership, and we had to cut approximately 20 percent of the budget immediately.

As a result, we currently produce seven weeks of free Shakespeare in the Park with one performance a day, opposed to eight weeks with two shows, which was the norm prior to 2001. We are committed to returning to two shows, however, and will offer them next year in conjunction with our anniversary celebrations.

That said, I think what's been hardest for theaters and other performing arts organizations post-9/11 is dealing with a changed environment. The new reality we all have to deal with is that theatergoers don't buy memberships or plan ahead, as much as they did, to go to the theater. Fewer people are willing to risk coming into the city but they also don't plan ahead simply because they don't know what's going to be happening in the world.

PND: How are things looking now?

MM: The unexpected twist in all this is that because the Public has emerged from such a tough spot, our turnaround has been well received by the community, including funders. Even though the city's economy hasn't completely rebounded from the recession and the shock of 9/11, we're seeing more of an openness to funding requests than we have in a while. I think our funders recognize the importance of the Public's role in the city's cultural landscape.

"...we are currently studying a major fundraising initiative to augment our endowment and for the renovation of our landmark building...."

Looking forward, we are currently undertaking a feasibility study to determine our potential for a major fundraising initiative to augment our endowment and raise much-needed funds for the renovation of our landmark building. In the past we've done quite well with foundations and certain types of corporations. But a campaign such as this would help galvanize support from individuals, a substantial growth potential for us.

At the same time, given the strength of our programming, such as Shakespeare in the Park, Joe's Pub, and other community activities — and the tremendous opportunities for visibility — there seems to be potential for increased corporate support. For instance, despite the fact that Joe's Pub is one of the best known and hottest performing arts venues in the city, it has no corporate sponsorships and is an area, in my mind, that's ripe for the picking. We recognize that the corporate market is difficult now, but with the value we deliver through our programs, it would be irresponsible not to explore the possibilities.

PND: As you mentioned earlier, about 10 percent of your funding comes from government. Is that from the city?

MM: Most of it, yes.

PND: What is your feeling about the Public's partnership with the city?

MM: It's a very effective relationship. We work with so many different parts of city government — the Parks Department for Shakespeare in the Park, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and even, because we're in the middle of a renovation here, the Department of Design and Construction.

But my dealings with the city have been unexpectedly fantastic. Maybe I shouldn't say "unexpectedly," because it's a new administration, but compared to my previous experience with the public sector, it's been anything but bureaucratic. The Bloomberg administration has been not only responsive and smart, but also more than willing to help us. They've even come in and helped us solve problems that were not necessarily their responsibility, which is going beyond what I ever would have expected.

I also think Mayor Bloomberg's personal support of the arts in the city has been really helpful, especially in light of what we all had to face after 9/11. I hope his administration continues — or at least for as long as I am executive director of the Public. We're just really grateful for the Bloomberg administration's responsive, and responsible, approach to the arts community in New York.

PND: Like a few other nonprofit theaters, the Public has had a long and productive relationship with Broadway. What role does Broadway play in the business of the Public today?

MM: The economics of Broadway have changed so dramatically since Joe Papp was here. For example, Joe was able to completely capitalize A Chorus Line, which went on to produce somewhere between $30 million and $40 million in income for the Public, a portion of which was allocated to our endowment.

But times have changed, and it now costs in the neighborhood of $5 million to $15 million to capitalize a musical on Broadway and between $2 million and $5 million to capitalize a play. So our board has made a decision not to commit to capitalizing plays on Broadway. You could say that presenting on Broadway can further our mission, in the sense that it helps us bring new voices to a broader audience, but our mission really is to produce shows at the Public. Certainly if we produce shows commercial enough for Broadway, the shows will continue to move there, but we will not be investors in those shows. We will continue to derive revenue from plays that move to Broadway, but we won't be in a position to reap the benefits of a smash hit. However, the board's decision does protect us from the costs of a failure.

PND: How do your collaborations with other theater groups work?

MM: We have a history of incubating younger, smaller theater companies. This year, and continuing into next, we have a collaboration with the Labyrinth Theater Company, a young company founded by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. Not only are they in residence at the Public and have taken over a stage in our building, we're also collaborating on a production with them this year and will collaborate on a second one next year.

We also collaborate with a number of smaller theater companies — the Pig Iron Theater Company in Philadelphia, Division 13 Productions in Brooklyn, and the Civilians in Manhattan — that come in and have part-time residencies where they develop material and use our stage, and those sometimes turn into production collaborations.

On the major production side, last year we collaborated with Donmar Warehouse in London on Take Me Out, and this year we co-produced, with the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, The Story, which started here and ended its run there. So, we're open to collaboration, and we'll do it depending on the material and how it fits with our season and their season.

PND: Can you tell us about your educational programs?

MM: Well, we are in the process of evaluating all our educational activities. In fact, we just hired a consultant who developed the education program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It's a good time to do it, because we have our Shakespeare Lab, which is an actor training program for graduate students, and we have Shakespeare in the Boroughs, which those graduate students present over the summer, both very successful programs. But our overall objective is to leverage the Public's signature qualities — dedication to inclusion and openness to innovation — into the development of a carefully researched, unified approach to arts education.

Another bright spot is the New York City public school system's renewed commitment to arts education. Sharon Dunn, who was a key part of the initiative in an earlier administration, has returned as Senior Instructional Manager for Arts Education, and I'm hoping that we might be able to create something together.

PND: Tell us more about the fiftieth anniversary celebrations.

"...[the fiftieth anniversary celebration] will be a citywide tribute to the life of Joseph Papp and the indelible mark he left on American theater...."

MM: This will be a citywide tribute to the life of Joseph Papp and the indelible mark he left on American theater, as well as the outstanding leadership and immense contributions of George Wolfe over the last decade. We will begin the celebration in the summer of 2005 with George Wolfe directing A Midsummer Night's Dream for Shakespeare in the Park. We'll also be doing a second show, either another Shakespeare or a musical. The downtown season will mainly be a mix of new commissions from classic Public writers and a series of readings of now-classic plays that premiered at the Public.

We're also exploring the idea of recreating the mobile theater, which goes from borough to borough and mounts productions of Shakespeare free of charge. The mobile theater was one of the predecessors of Shakespeare in the Park, and whether we'll operate it on an ongoing basis or only during next summer will be dependent on whether or not we can secure an underwriter, but what a wonderful opportunity for corporate sponsorship!

PND: Sounds like a full plate. You'll let us know details and other plans as they're settled?

MM: Absolutely.

PND: Great. Thank you for your time.

MM: My pleasure. You're welcome.

Rob Johnston, the editor of Philanthropy News Digest, interviewed Mara Manus in April. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, at mfn@fdncenter.org.