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The Legacy of Public Theater's Joe Papp

Theater today, like most forms of entertainment, is a money business. When average Americans think of theater, they think of splashy Broadway productions such as The Producers, Chicago and Hairspray. These productions require piles of money to produce and are expected to earn their keep on the Great White Way.

But off-Broadway, in smaller theaters around New York and across the country, there is still the passion of putting new and classic works on stage at minimal cost and with no price tag for the audience.

Such is the legacy of Joe Papp (1921‑91), director, producer and founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater. Known almost equally for his creative genius, boundless ingenuity and booming energy (some may say his booming temper), Papp was the man who brought free Shakespeare to Central Park, stood up to the city's mid-century man-in-charge Robert Moses and championed new playwrights from all walks.

"Joe Papp's Legacy" was the topic of the Oct. 20 Columbia University Arts Initiative panel discussion, moderated by Gregory Mosher, director of the initiative and former director of Lincoln Center Theater. Mosher invited five theater stalwarts, four of whom knew Papp personally, to examine how one of the city's most influential public-art heroes had or had not ingrained his ideals into the bedrock of the theater and the city.

Joining Mosher at Columbia's Miller Theatre were Academy Award–winning actor Kevin Kline; author and critic John Heilpern; playwright, Columbia Arts Playwriting Program Director and INTAR Theater Artistic Director Eduardo Machado; founder and Producing Director of New Federal Theatre and National Black Touring Circuit Woodie King Jr.; and director Diane Paulus, SOA'97.

"All of us who work in the theater or even love the theater carry around Joe Papp," said Mosher. "And for many of us -- I suspect everyone on this panel -- he's more than just a memory, or the stimulus to a memory of a nice evening we spent at the park, or a stimulating evening that we spent on Lafayette Street. He's a presence -- a persistent presence."

Mosher's sentiments were echoed by the panelists, who admitted to feeling daunted at times by Papp's legendary conviction but were inspired by him like no other theater director. Particularly for Machado and King, Papp became an example of how to bring the minority voice to the forefront, with his productions of Cuba and His Teddy Bear and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.

Beyond the inspiration and guidance Papp delivered, however, remains the needling concern that theater, particularly New York theater, is growing too expensive for the public's widespread experience and enjoyment, and therefore, "not reflecting the world," said Heilpern.

"For those of us who look to theater to tell our stories, you have to believe in the storyteller, who is Shakespeare," Heilpern continued. "You have to stand by your guns and be nonprofit. Be a radical alternative to Broadway. And you have to invite the world into your theater. And that, I believe, is the living legacy of Joe Papp."

This public discussion is the first in a series organized by the Columbia University Arts Initiative. A program on the new Museum of Modern Art will follow later this fall.

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Published: Nov 1, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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