By: Linda Buchwald
"When Hal Prince walks into a room, it's not just Hal Prince that walks into the room, it's the entire history of American theater that walks into the room," says Orin Wolf, one of two inaugural recipients of the T Fellowship. Prince had such a profound influence on theater because he was able to develop his shows and have a creative say. The T Fellowship was created to cultivate the next generation of creative theatrical producers like Prince. The late producer T. Edward Hambleton originated the idea for the fellowship and developed it with his co-founders, the late Geraldine Stutz, Ed Wilson, (all three were long-time TDF Trustees) and Prince, as well as TDF, the Columbia Arts Initiative, and the Theater Arts Division of the Columbia School of the Arts. The members of the fellowship committee are Prince, Wilson, Margo Lion, Jack O'Brien, Victoria Bailey, Gregory Mosher, Steven Chaikelson, and Annette Niemtzow.
"The reason Hal Prince and these people decided to create this fellowship is they wanted to see producers with a much larger creative stake in the work, not just people that write checks, which is often a misnomer about what producing is or isn't," says Wolf.
The culmination of Wolf's work in the fellowship is Groundswell, which is now playing at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row through June 27. Groundswell takes place on the west coast of South Africa in the aftermath of Apartheid. Thami, a gardener, and Johan, an ex-cop, try to entice a guest at the beachfront lodge they are caring for to invest in a diamond concession. "This is a play about racial ambiguity. This is a play about death. This is a play about responsibility," Wolf says, sitting outside the Acorn before an early evening show.
Wolf initially studied acting as an undergraduate, but quickly realized that his interest in the experience of an audience made him more suited to the role of a producer. He's been in New York for eight years now, working for various producers and starting his own company, Off Broadway Booking. A few years ago, he conceived and commissioned a hip-hop show for high school students, The History of the Word, which has toured the country and played at the Apollo. It was the playwright Wolf hired for that show, Ben Snyder, who saw Groundswell in South Africa and sent Wolf the script.
Wolf was immediately drawn to the play, in large part due to the universal themes that seemed especially relevant after Hurricane Katrina. "What Katrina allowed me to maybe see, was the fact that for a moment it was clear to me that we're still recovering from [slavery], we still have a long way to go, and it took a horrifying event like Katrina to make it so evident and so clear that this disparity exists," he says. "I'm not saying that Katrina was a racist incident. What I'm saying is that it was an incident that affected primarily poor African Americans in this country."
Wolf started an e-mail relationship with the playwright, Ian Bruce. "I just said, 'Look I'm this young producer in New York, I love your play. I think it's brilliant. I want to produce it. I don't have any money, but give me the rights and if some other producer with a lot of money comes along, I won't get in your way,'" Wolf says.
He submitted the proposal to the fellowship, and was surprised and grateful at his acceptance, calling the opportunity "ridiculous." "There's the great satisfaction of being awarded that," he says, "But then there's the great burden and the great truth of the matter is that even with that, nobody gives you anything. You don't get anything. I didn't sign up for the T Fellowship and then one day later I had this production. It still took me two years of grinding and grinding."
Part of that grinding included getting The New Group on board and its creative director Scott Elliott to direct. Robyn Goodman, who taught a creative producing class Wolf was auditing at Columbia, made the introduction to Elliott. Wolf constantly talks about Elliott's clarity, which he greatly values in directors and producers. He also uses that word to describe the two fellowship advisors who were most influential to him, Hal Prince and Gregory Mosher. "These men, people like Gregory, people like Hal, these director/producers who do both things and do them well, what I think is brilliant about them is that clarity. They see things clearly and they communicate things clearly," he says.
There has been much interest in Groundswell around the country and in London, though nothing concrete is planned for after The New Group run. Wolf hopes to continue his relationship with the fellowship. "If somebody can get a tenth of what I got out of it, then it's worth it. Because I feel like what I've got it is immeasurable," he says. "It's amazing to me that I can look back and say it's given me what I think I need to really make a sustained effort to make this my career."