Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, co-directors of the documentary film Joe Papp in Five Acts, were fresh from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City when I caught up with them after the screening of their feature-length film last Saturday at the Silverdocs festival in Silver Springs, Maryland. The film is broken in to “acts” or segments that tell the story of Papp’s life and career (which dominated his life), for example “Act II – Unto the Breech” uses a combination of black and white photos, historical theatrical footage and modern-day interviews to journal Papp’s indelible mark on American Theater.
Joe Papp wanted theater to be as free as the New York Public Library, especially if it was Shakespeare. He founded a tradition of Shakespeare in the Park, as well as New York City’s Public Theater, which was renamed The Joseph Papp Public Theater upon his death in 1991. Papp also blazed a trail for interracial, or color-blind casting, not because he wanted to make a political point, but because he wanted people listening to the show to really hear the words, to connect to the actors in the play. So he cast Hamlet as a Puerto Rican janitor, and the audience, laughing at first, was drawn into the story in a fresh and relevant way. The words took on new life.
“I believe that great art is for everyone–not just the rich or the middle class. When I go into East Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant and see the kids who come to see our shows, I see nothing so clearly as myself.” — Joe Papp
This advocate of “Shakespeare for the People” was asked to name names and ruin careers during the McCarthy era, and his refusal to do this was eloquent (as narrated by Mandy Patinkin in the film) and risky. Papp was anything but safe in his approach, however, so this simply set the stage for future struggles with the city of New York, including an intense debate with Robert Moses over the free performances which also made use of unpaid actors. In the end, Papp prevailed, but it was his production of Two Gentlemen of Verona that epitomizes the complexity of this American icon.
Controversy over the portrayal of Shylock (performed by a young George C. Scott) was answered by Papp’s revelation that he himself was Jewish. This secret had been long-kept as Papp had learned the hard way that admitting his heiritage could cost him work; work that his impoverished immigrant parents desperately needed to survive on. Papp’s childhood jobs cleaning shoes, among other chores, kept his mother and father afloat in a city that could be both harsh and beautiful. Papp’s admission, while shocking to the community and his closest friends, allowed this first production of Two Gentlemen to continue, and set the stage for his conversion of the Astor Library in New York, formerly used to house homeless Jews, to an American Theater producing gritty and original plays about the Vietnam war from authors like David Rabe and David Mamet.
“If you separate yourself from your ethnic group, then where does your authenticity come from?”
Papp’s authenticity, his core self, was centered in this theatrical productions, and the people who brought them to life. He was intense, and playwrights fell in and out of favor with him over the years. His production of Hair was hugely successful on Broadway, but his struggling theatres received little revenue from it. Another director had taken it to Broadway. Papp didn’t make that mistake again…when A Chorus Line became a hit, the revenue was used to support the artistic endeavors of the Public Theater and the Delacorte. In the film he states “Let’s move to Broadway, where they’ve done all that trash.” His idea was to put radical at the center of New York City, and open eyes to the importance of plays like The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, a play about the lack of response and support to the AIDS crisis.
After watching the story of a gentleman in New York on the screen, I asked each filmmaker what advice, if any, they had for aspiring young filmmakers. “Stay strong and follow your heart,” said Karen Thorsen. “Women are drawn to documentaries,” said Tracie Holder. “It’s about helping to raise social consciousness.” Joe Papp, ever the populist, would back that cause.