11 February, 2009
Joseph Papp was an American theatrical producer and director. He was a high school student of Harlem Renaissance playwright Eulalie Spence.
Born in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954 with the aim of making Shakespeare's works accessible to the public. In 1957 he was granted the use of Central Park for free productions of Shakespeare's plays.
By age 41, after the establishment of Central Park's Delacorte Theater, Papp looked for an all-year theater he could make his own. After looking at other locations, he fell in love with the location and the character of Lafayette Street’s Astor Library. After massive renovations, Papp moved his staff to the newly named Public Theater, hoping to attract a newer, less conventional audience to new and innovative playwrights.
Papp also obtained the use of the Astor Library Building in 1967; this has since become known as the Joseph Papp Public Theater.
At the Public Theater, Papp's focus moved away from the Shakespearean classics and toward new work. Notable Public productions included Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody (the first off-Broadway show, and the first play by an African American, to win the Pulitzer Prize) and the plays of David Rabe, Tom Babe, and Jason Miller. Papp called his productions of Rabe's plays "the most important thing I did at the Public."
As festival designer Ming Cho Lee put it, “With the new playwrights, the whole direction of the theater changed. Joe changed direction and none of us realized for a while that he had changed direction. The Public Theater became more important than the Delacorte. The new playwrights became more interesting to Joe than Shakespeare."
Among the myriad plays and musical Papp produced, Papp is perhaps best known for his productions of Hair, The Pirates of Penzance, and A Chorus Line.
Along with the Public Theater, Papp was best known for the New York Shakespeare Festival, which he founded, but he was also a Gilbert and Sullivan lover. In 1980, to commemorate the centenary of The Pirates of Penzance, Papp mounted a souped-up, modernized version of the opera in Central Park. The show was a sensation, and Papp transferred it to the Broadway stage, where it ran for over 800 performances. It won Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Director, Wilford Leach, and Best Actor -- Kevin Kline -- and Linda Ronstadt was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical. The Papp production was much criticized in Gilbert & Sullivan circles. To make the opera more suitable for a Broadway audience, Papp's creative team wrote new orchestrations for a synthesizer-based orchestra. Musical tags were expanded or contracted, verses were transposed. The "fight scene" between the pirates and police, to which Sullivan had allotted only ten chords, was entirely rewritten. The Act II finale was restored to its first-night state. Liberties were taken with the dialogue too, though certainly not to the same degree as the music.
In addition to founding the New York Shakespeare Festival, Papp played a key role in the fostering of theatre throughout New York, in particular, the development of numerous Off Broadway theatres throughout his years as head of the NYSF. Among the many theatres that Papp supported (often with funds from successful Broadway transfers, such as A Chorus Line) were Theatre for a New Audience, which presented several productions at the NYSF, and the Riverside Shakespeare Company, for whom Papp took a special interest, beginning with the sponsorship of the New York premiere of Brecht's Edward II in 1982, continuing with the financial underwriting of Riverside's New York Parks Tours of Free Shakespeare, including The Comedy of Errors in (1982), Merry Wives of Windsor in 1983, Romeo and Juliet in 1984, and Romeo and Juliet in 1985. In 1983, Papp dedicated newly renovated theatre of The Shakespeare Center with Helen Hayes. A complete listing of Festival productions is available in Joe Papp: An American Life by Helen Epstein.
Joseph Papp died of prostate cancer, aged 70. His biography Joe Papp: An American Life was written by journalist Helen Epstein and published in 1994.