Arts & Media: pounds 1m trust to aid the budding playwright

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The Independent Online
A businessman yesterday announced the setting-up of a trust to encourage new playwrights and finance new plays. Peter Wolff, who founded the Marks & Spencer clothing supplier SR Gent after arriving in this country as a refugee in 1937, has contributed pounds 1m. It was, he said, his way of "saying `thank you' to England".

Mr Wolff was seven when he reached Britain from Germany with his Jewish parents and settled in north London. When he was 15 his father died, so he went to work to support his family. He took an evening job as an usher at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London, which specialised in staging new plays alongside classics. It was then that he first got a taste for what was to become a lifelong love.

Now, at 67, after 45 years in business, he is returning to the theatre, at a time when Arts Council grants are being whittled away. Six months ago he made pounds 9m from the sale of SR Gent and retired as chairman. "I did a Price Waterhouse audit on myself and thought, `What do I do with my life?'," he said. "I thought that this was my chance to do something for the country in my own way - I'd been reading about the Arts Council - in an area I really love."

He founded the Peter Wolff Theatre Trust and is having discussions with six London theatres including the Orange Tree in Richmond, the Hampstead Theatre Club and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He hopes others will follow suit. "I'm doing this as an individual, but there are other people in this country who have money. If we each put in a million, can you imagine?"

His main priority is to "have fun", along with his friend and partner, Bill Freedman, the trust's executive director. They plan to commission four new plays a year for the next five years. They hope to boost the fund by selling the rights to film and television companies and say Miramax has expressed interest. "It's not `art for art's sake'," Mr Wolff said "Otherwise we will run out of money in five years."

Clare Garner