She had planned to spend the early summer in Central Park rehearsing Henry VIII, a play about, among other things, the inheritance of a man’s powerful position by a woman. But when the 26-member board of directors of the New York Shakespeare Festival summarily dismissed JoAnne Akalaitis from her job as the festival’s artistic director on March 15, any number of plans changed. Over the next few days Akalaitis packed away 20 months’ worth of notabilia, issued a polite but unequivocal statement to the press, talked with characteristic frankness to friends and colleagues about how and why she was fired, then flew to Spain on April 5 for a visit with her daughter. Upon her return, she was scheduled to go into rehearsal for a play that might be viewed as the antithesis of a Shakespeare history: Jane Bowles’s poetic 1953 psychological study In the Summer House, which Andre Bishop has hired her to direct at Lincoln Center Theater Company.Order now
The gap in the Central Park season will be filled by Measure for Measure, a play about, among other things, the uses and abuses of power, and the gap at the Festival’s helm was filled by director and playwright George C. Wolfe. Connected with the Festival since 1986 his Colored Museum and Spunk premiered there Wolfe has been curator of the theatre’s Festival of New Voices performances series for the past two seasons under Akalaitis. In accepting the appointment, Wolfe assumed the title by which the Festival’s founder and driving force Joseph Papp had been known for some 37 years: producer. A secondary leadership role was taken on by another Festival regular, actor Kevin Kline, who will shoulder his title of artistic associate by playing the Duke in Measure for Measure.
Akalaitis’s ouster and Wolfe’s appointment stirred passions throughout the national theatre community and quarrelsome commentary in the press. Akalaitis, 55, had been hand-picked by Papp as his successor just three months before his death, and the board’s decision to allow her barely a season-and-a-half in which to put her mark on the company was widely criticized. The board presented the change as a correction of “bifurcated leadership” (Akalaitis’s coequal producing director Jason Steven Cohen will remain but will report to Wolfe in the new structure), but it is generally acknowledged that Akalaitis’s taste for dark, audience-challenging work and her reported disinterest in courting funders and donors were looked upon with disfavor by board members. Demurrals by the board notwithstanding, the 38-year-old Wolfe’s in-demand status on Broadway as well as in the nonprofit theatre–he is the author and director of Jelly’s Last Jam and director of Angels in America was part of his appeal as her replacement.
The New York Times, no fan of Akalaitis’s work before or after her ascension to the Festival post, covered the transition in a series of articles almost celebratory in tone. In a March 21 piece, chief critic Frank Rich hailed the appointment of Wolfe as a “close escape from calamity” and went on to decry Akalaitis’s “narrow, academic vision” and her “virtually nonexistent” producing record, referring to a dearth of new work originating at the Festival during her tenure. (An attachment to Akalaitis’s press statement counters the criticism with a seven-page list of “artistic activity.”)
In her own view–and that of several editorial commentators on the affair the Times’ reductive and unrelentingly assaultive coverage of Akalaitis’s Festival leadership played a major role in her dismissal. “The center of this story,” Akalaitis believes, “is an agenda on the part of the New York Times.
“Boards of directors have to have opinions–they need to have their antennae out into the world,” Akalaitis said in an interview the night before she boarded the plane for Spain. “But if you have a board who doesn’t know who the artistic director is, and that hasn’t had the chance to use its muscle, it may be casting about for clues about how to think and behave and these come from the media. These signs from the media tell them something different from what may be actually happening at the theatre. In this case, it’s not that the board has a strong opinion it has no opinion. It’s waiting to be told what to think by the newspapers.”
She has little patience for those who see her as a “transition” figure. “There is no transition what happens in theatre is that artists just come in and do their work. I’m not a transitional person I’m the person Joe Papp picked as his successor.”