Two prominent supporters of the Folger Theatre, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole said yesterday they are heading a committee to save the theater, which is scheduled to close in June. Folger Library director Werner Gundersheimer, who had ordered the closing because of financial losses, said yesterday that he is "open to alternatives."
Moynihan, a neighbor of the Capitol Hill theater, said the group, called Folger Audience, is "determined to keep classical repertory theater in Washington."
Folger Audience did not say how it planned to save the theater, but Moynihan said, "If it takes money, we'll raise it." Discussions in and out of the theater have focused on the idea that the present Folger company would regroup as an independent, autonomous entity; and that it would perform in the library's replica of the Old Globe theater, which has given it a special identity. Gundersheimer said he was not opposed to that idea as long as the theater was assured of long-term financing.
Members of the new committee include city school superintendent Floretta McKenzie; John Daniel Reaves, a Washington lawyer and occasional performer; Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column; and Wolf Von Eckardt, design critic for Time magazine.
"The Folger Theatre," Moynihan said, "is an integral and essential part of the cultural life of our nation's capital. There is no acceptable reason for closing it and depriving this community of the pleasure and inspiration of experiencing Shakespeare. The Bard belongs not just on library shelves but on a living stage."
Dole, in a statement released by her office, said, "The Folger Theatre's impressive productions have added sparkle and substance to the Washington theater scene. Its loss would be a tragedy to the citizens of Washington and the nation."
McKenzie added, "The Folger Theatre brings the library to life. Antiquity in books is also fine, but it is the theater that enables Shakespeare to capture the children's imagination."
A spokeswoman for Folger Audience said it was "growing larger by the moment" and that the names of more supporters would be made public soon.
Gundersheimer said yesterday that "what we've been saying all along is that the library wants to find ways of cooperating with the community to keep professional theater in the library. We stand ready to work with people who will help do it."
He met with theater employes yesterday afternoon for an hour and a half, and on Tuesday night with the theater's advisory board. According to Gundersheimer and others, both meetings were amicable and positive. "I thought he answered a lot of touchy questions," managing director Mary Ann de Barbieri said.
Gundersheimer had given notice that the library, which administers the theater, planned to "dissolve" it at the end of the season, June 30, because the theater's deficits were too high and and its finances unpredictable. The library, administered by the trustees of Amherst College under a $28 million endowment from Henry Clay Folger, has spent almost $2 million on the theater over the 15 years of its existence.
Gundersheimer has said that the library planned to allocate about $50,000 a year for theater programs; he has mentioned a chamber theater or a week-long "all-city high school Shakespeare competition."
Yesterday he said that "exact dollars are not the crucial thing . . . that's negotiable," leaving open the possibility that the $50,000 -- or more -- might be available; or that in-kind contributions such as rent or maintenance costs could be negotiated.
"We're not interested in a rescue effort that would just save the theater for next year," he said. "It has to be on a stable economic basis . . . We want the theater. We just don't like huge risks."
The Folger Theatre opened in 1970 and has since built a reputation for productions of new plays as well as Shakespeare. Since 1981, when artistic director John Neville-Andrews took over, the repertoire has been primarily classical, and a conservatory to teach acting has been added. The theater's budget this year is about $1.6 million, with $1.2 million of that expected to come from box office revenues.
The National Park Service contributes $343,000 a year to the library, which theater partisans claim is intended primarily for the theater -- thus producing a benefit for the library it would not otherwise have. Gundersheimer said yesterday that "there are two schools of thought" on the Park Service money, the other being that it is intended for the library as a "historic site."
"But there is a clear desire by those who are affronted by the decision [to close the theater] to use this money as a way of placing pressure on us," he said. "Obviously we don't want to lose it."
He contends that very little of the money is actually spent on the theater, that most of it is for maintenance of the exterior of the building and security for the rare manuscripts in the library's collection.
A Park Service spokeswoman said the money is for the library's "maintenance and security" and that it would be up to Congress to determine how the theater's closing might affect future allocations.