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SPOTLIGHT: Mara Manus, '81

The Bottom Line Backstage

Courtesy The Public Theater

GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY: Manus helped the Public Theater achieve new financial stability by its 50th season.

A photo in the hallway shows a 1950s Chevy 3100 Wagon bearing the words “New York Summer Shakespeare Festival” parked in what appears to be a field. Behind the car, men are setting up an outdoor stage. Half a century later, in the midst of the Public Theater’s 50th anniversary season, no image in the office better illustrates the organization’s goal of making theater accessible. You don’t need to come to us, the picture seems to say. We come to you.

Executive director Mara Manus has pointed out this photo as part of a discussion about one of the season’s achievements: a return from one to two annual free productions of Shakespeare in Central Park. Manus, a former movie executive who came to the Public in 2002, often is credited for a turnaround in the Public’s financial fortunes. In addition to its star-studded free Shakespeare, the theater produces new plays each year at its six performance spaces, holds training workshops and produces study guides for students and teachers.

“I think movies are for masses,” she says. “The point of [the Public] is to make theater much more that way. In this country, it’s been more of an elite form.”

Manus grew up in New York, the daughter of an entertainment attorney and a literary agent. When as a girl she asked her mother about the homeless men she saw on the street, she was told that they were “people like your father, but they just fell on hard times.” It stuck with her. Thirteen years into a Hollywood career (she was a vice president of production at Universal Studios at the tender age of 26), she was drawn to nonprofit work. She took a job running Chrysalis, a Los Angeles nonprofit that works on homelessness and joblessness, and later became a program officer at the Ford Foundation.

“Moving from Hollywood to the nonprofit world was the hardest transition I made in my career,” Manus says. “I came from a business of continuous change, projects coming in and out of your life. It was the first time I was told, ‘By the way, Mara, people don’t like change.’”

From 1994 to 1998, her stewardship expanded Chrysalis’s operating budget from $1.2 million to $4 million. By the time she got a call from a friend about the opening at the Public, Manus’s experience working with creative talent combined with her nonprofit background made her the perfect candidate. “I’ve never met someone in American nonprofit theater who has her breadth of experience,” says artistic director Oskar Eustis.

Manus was instrumental in reorganizing the finances of the Public, which was struggling after 9-11. She worked closely with the board of directors and improved relations with individual and corporate funders. Since her arrival, Manus says, individual giving has grown by almost 79 percent. “The art was great, but the institutional side was lacking,” she says. “You need stability to attract more funders.”

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