Director Change Expected for N.Y. Shakespeare Festival : Theater: Company reorganization will include replacement of JoAnne Akalaitis by George C. Wolfe.


A major shake-up in the New York Shakespeare Festival is expected to see director George C. Wolfe replace JoAnne Akalaitis today as boss of one of Manhattan's most prestigious and productive theater companies.

Akalaitis has been artistic director since August, 1991, shortly before festival founder Joseph Papp died.

Larry Condon, chairman of the festival board's executive committee, said discussions had been going on for several months about "what kind of leadership the theater wants for the future." His committee "will make a recommendation to the full board (today) in regard to reorganization."

An admittedly upset Akalaitis said Friday that she felt she had laid new foundations for the theater in relation to artists and audiences. "The board chose to ignore the theater's successes," she said. "I'm not retiring; I'm being fired."

Through a publicist for "Angels in America," the play he is directing for its Broadway opening next month, Wolfe confirmed he had met with the festival's executive committee "who've made inquiries as to whether or not I'd be interested in the position, but there will be no official decision until Monday."

Sources at the festival's Public Theater said that actor Kevin Kline, a veteran of numerous festival productions, probably would play a significant role in the reorganized company.

One of the effects of the change would be to centralize management under Wolfe. During Papp's long regime, he presided over all aspects of the festival, keeping both artistic and administrative control in his hands and dominating the board of directors that he had picked.

After Papp's death, Akalaitis was placed in charge of artistic matters and producing director Jason Steven Cohen handled administration and management. Cohen will remain in that position, but it is expected he will report to Wolfe instead of directly to the board.

With Papp's death, the board has asserted itself more in festival operations, while steering clear of purely artistic matters. It has, for instance, hired a management consultant firm to assist in planning.

In the context of long-range plans, the board was said to have decided it needed to focus the festival's leadership on one person. It was after making that decision that the executive committee settled on Wolfe, a Papp protege whose first major success was the festival's production of his play "The Colored Museum."

Akalaitis, whose contract with the festival was to expire in August, 1994, said she now plans "to do what I've always done, to direct plays."

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