New York’s Public Theater Lays Off 19 Percent of Its Staff

The Public Theater, one of the nation’s most prestigious and successful nonprofit theaters, laid off 19 percent of its staff on Thursday as a financial crisis sweeps across the field.

The move, which cost about 50 people their jobs, followed a 13 percent layoff at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a 10 percent layoff at the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles.

The Public, headquartered in Lower Manhattan and presenting work primarily Off Broadway, is by almost any measure a titan among nonprofit theaters — the birthplace of “A Chorus Line” and “Hamilton,” the originator and presenter of Free Shakespeare in the Park, and a creative anchor for some of the nation’s most influential dramatists.

But the theater, like many others, is suffering from the combined effects of falling revenue and rising costs.

“The economic headwinds that are attacking the American theater are attacking us, too,” Oskar Eustis, the theater’s artistic director, said in an interview. “Our audience is down by about 30 percent, we have expenses up anywhere from 30 to 45 percent, and we have kept our donor base, but it’s static. Put that all together, and you get budget shortfalls — big budget shortfalls.”

Eustis said the Public would not shutter any programs beyond its previous decision to put its Under the Radar Festival, an annual program of experimental work, on indefinite hiatus.

But Eustis said the Public would need to reduce the amount of theater it is staging in the short term — its next season, he said, will feature five shows at its Astor Place building, down from 11 in the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic. The traditional Shakespeare in the Park program will also not take place next year because its home, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, will be undergoing a long-planned renovation, but Eustis said the company is seeking a way to present some Shakespeare at an alternate location (or locations) next summer.

The theater’s executive director, Patrick Willingham, said the cuts would be spread across the company’s operations. “It’s a pullback in every department at every level,” he said.

The Public currently has about 246 full-time positions, Willingham said. The company had a previous round of layoffs in 2021 as it tried to rebound following the pandemic closure of theaters, and it also had staff furloughs at the height of the pandemic. Willingham said this week’s layoffs were not a surprise to the staff because the need for spending cuts had been discussed internally for some time. “We’ve been really transparent with the employees over the course of this year,” he said. “We’ve been really clear that we were going to have to make reductions.”

Willingham said the Public’s annual budget during the next fiscal year will be around $50 million, down from about $60 million before the coronavirus pandemic. He added that, thanks to federal pandemic relief funds and royalties from “Hamilton,” the theater is hoping it will not have a budget deficit during its current fiscal year, which ends next month, or the following fiscal year. “We’re making decisions that are actually trying to get ahead of what we’re seeing as this nationwide trend,” Willingham said, “so that we can get to a sustainable model we can rely on year after year.”

Eustis, who is among the best-compensated artistic directors in the field, said he will cut his own pay by an unspecified amount — “I will be taking a significant reduction in salary,” he said — but that “nobody else would or should” have a salary reduction.

He added that the Public remains committed to its Public Works program, in which amateur performers join professionals to put on musical pageants adapted from classic works, and its mobile unit, which presents Shakespeare in a variety of locations in and around the city, including at prisons and community centers.

Eustis called the cuts “absolutely necessary to secure the Public’s security and future,” but also “tremendously sad and difficult.” However, at a time when some theaters are closing as a result of financial problems, Eustis said the Public is in no such danger.

“This is not an existential crisis,” he said. “We are taking moves that mean that the Public’s existence and future will not be threatened. The Public will be here, and performing its mission, long past the time you and I are here.”


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