01/22/2013 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Joe Papp Documentary Is Superb Depiction of Complex Man

Joe Papp

I grew up in New York during the age of Joe Papp. For those of my Huffington readers who don't know who Joe Papp was, I will explain him by noting that he was a young, tough theatrical impresario who changed the way millions of New Yorkers thought about free pubic theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular. From the mid-50s until he died in 1991, he was probably the most important theatrical figure in that city, perhaps in the country, influencing hordes of people favorably about the enjoyment of the theatrical experience.

Last night I was invited by my long-time friend and reader, noted theatrical agent Harry Abrams, to attend a screening at the Skirball of the documentary film, Joe Papp in Five Acts: A Film by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen. Harry, along with friend TV writer Allan Burns, introduced the film in their role as directors of the Music Center Leadership Council, a group dedicated to promoting the theatrical experience for young people in Los Angeles. (They sponsor the wonderful Spotlight Awards.) The two producers/directors of the film Karen and Tracey, were on hand and, in a post-screening session, explained that the documentary would be appearing on the wonderful PBS TV series, American Masters, sometime this year.

I naturally asked about theatrical distribution for this amazing portrait of a complex, fascinating man, and they sadly explained that there were musical fragments from three productions which originated in Joe's Public Theatre seen in the film, and although PBS TV had a prior right to use this music they could no do so theatrically or in schools because the music rights are owned by three major corporations. These musical segments are from Hair, A Chorus Line, and Two Gentlemen from Verona, shows which originated with Joe and then went on to become huge successes in the commercial theatre. I strongly believe that this film should be seen by everyone interested in the theatre, especially young people who have aspirations in that direction, so perhaps those three corporations could waive their rights to the musical segments in this special case.

Co-producer/director Karen Thorsen

...and co-producer/director Tracie Holder.

One of the producers, Karen Thorsen, had previously worked with the Maysles Bros. as she wrote, co-produced and directed a documentary on writer James Baldwin which ran on PBS, which explains how that non-profit media organizations got involved here. Karen's new documentary is Thomas Paine: Voice of Revolution. The other producer, Tracie Holder, who had actually worked with Joe Papp on fundraising activities, has been active in the New York social media film scene for many years. (She later told me that her father had gone to Midwood High in Brooklyn, my alma mata.) A personal note: the film prominently features two actors whose early careers I had something to do with. Al Pacino made his Broadway debut in my production of Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, for which he won a Tony Award. (When our film of it fell through, I sent him to see director Francis Coppola about playing the role of Sonny in The Godfather. Al later appeared at my office door to borrow a quarter for bus fare uptown where he was living with an actress named Jill Clayburgh... and said that he had been offered the role of Michael instead.) He later played many roles in Papp's Public Theatre. And Mandy Patinkin had his first movie role as the taxi driver in my film of Night of the Juggler, driving James Brolin around Central Park seeking his kidnapped daughter.

Famed theatrical agent Harry Abrams hosted the screening of the film.

But it was Joe Papp who brought to prominence dozens upon dozens of actors who have gone on to fame and fortune later. Meryl Streep tells a story in the film about how it was Joe Papp who was the first person in her hospital room after she gave birth to her son, even before her husband could enter. And we see the young James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, Martin Sheen, Olympia Dukakis, Roscoe Lee Browne and Kevin Kline, all worked for Joe at the start of their careers, usually for little or no pay. Back to Joe: he was a street-wise kid from Brooklyn who, for 30 years, hid his ethnic Jewish background before outing himself when a bunch of rabbis protested his production of The Merchant of Venice. What I remember is how he mounted free outdoor Shakespeare plays for working-class audiences in the East Village; one production drew a rave review from the New York Times' Clive Barnes despite being for rain after one act. You see, this was a man who loudly, vehemently proclaimed that free theatre is like free libraries, art must be free for the masses. "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."

When he began producing free Shakespeare plays in Central Park, he ran up against the powerful commissioner Robert Moses, who insisted that people pay for the performances ...and won a bitter court contest. Joe was the man who integrated the performers with interracial casting, insisting that men and women of minority groups could play any role. Thus there was a black Hamlet and even a woman Hamlet. I do remember in 1954 seeing his portable truck stage taken to the outer boroughs of New York. He was radical politically from a young age, and the film depicts how he and friends would fight the authorities who evicted people from their homes by putting back their furniture at night. He fought the House Un-American Committee all through the '50s, and Senator Jesse Helm was a sworn enemy, He fostered the career of playwrights like David Hare, Ntozake Shange and Larry Kramer, whose The Normal Heart broke the AIDS story wide open. Tragically, Joe's son died of AIDS shortly before Joe died of cancer in the early '90s. The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to this day stands as a monument to Joe Papp's efforts.

But I admire the fact that these producers did not gloss over the darkness which often engulfed the man, whose personal feuds were legendary in the theatre. His long-time associate Bernie Gersten, broke with him when Joe refused to produce Michael Bennett's second play after they had such a huge success with A Chorus Line. At the end of his life, he did try to rectify some of the most abusive acts, but clearly there was some rancor that never dissipated. Four divorces are mentioned, and children who often rebelled. This was a complicated larger-than-life guy who embodied the best and worse of the human race... but he did it more grandly than most, like a Shakespearean character (Henry V?) and left a legacy which is breathtaking. Joe Papp is responsible for more people being exposed to the joys of the theatre than any other man in history. Now that's something!

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