Filmmaking Pair Pays Tribute to Joe Papp

Posted on November 17, 2011

Last month in New York, the Ford Foundation hosted a screening of the ITVS-funded Joe Papp in Five Acts. The filmmaking pair of Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, who spent more than a decade producing the documentary, offered BTB their impressions of the event and the legendary Joe Papp.

The Unofficial Mayor of New York City By Tracie Holder 

Joe Papp in Five Acts is the story of New York’s indomitable, street-wise champion of the arts who introduced interracial casting to the American stage and brought us free Shakespeare in the Park, Hair, and A Chorus Line. Convinced that women and minorities, denied power elsewhere in society, could develop it on the stage, Papp became a tireless fighter for the arts who raised enduring debate about our founding ideals and the role of the arts in a pluralistic society. 

Using his life and work as its prism, the film explores the issues he chose to champion: freedom of expression, democracy in the arts, and the definition of American culture. Recently, the Ford Foundation hosted a screening of our documentary, Joe Papp in Five Acts, at an event celebrating Papp’s Public Theater. It was a thrilling evening during which the President of the Foundation announced a $2 million gift to the Public to complete its capital campaign.

October 31, 2011 marked the 20th anniversary of Joe Papp's death. Since then, Papp’s name had faded from popular memory. I wondered if the film would resonate for a contemporary audience and specifically if Papp’s vision of a truly democratic American art — one that is free and accessible to everyone regardless of ability to pay — would be relevant. But as I watched the film, my first time seeing it on a big screen, I was struck by how timely it had become. In this moment, when the public sphere is so hotly contested and any sense of a shared culture is melting away, Papp’s belief in the power of art to transform people’s lives and to empower people whose voices often go unheard is amazingly current. 

When I was growing up, Papp was the unofficial Mayor of New York. He was on the front lines of every important issue I held dear, while the plays he staged reflected the real life dramas that were going on around us. From the Vietnam War to AIDS, from public funding of the arts to defending the rights of squatters — Papp saw no separation between life and art. At the reception following the screening, several young men and women sought me out. They shared with me how moved they were by Papp’s belief in art as an essential ingredient of a democracy and his unwavering commitment to a vibrant public sphere. They said his vision reminded them why they do what they do, despite the financial hardships, and helped reaffirm their commitment to their work as artists. I was deeply touched by their words and realized in that moment that Papp’s spirit lives on and his vision is as meaningful now as it was when he was alive. 

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 

Why Joe Papp Matters By Karen Thorsen


One of the key lines in our film comes from playwright/director George C. Wolfe:  “Joe understood that culture empowers you.  If you see your images, if you hear your stories, it gives you a sense that you have the right to be in the room.  It is a way to affirm who you are.” Joe Papp spent a lifetime empowering others and Tracie and I were among those he touched. Joe produced some of our earliest memories: not always the same plays, not even the same memories — but we were both in Joe’s audience. 

I’m old enough to remember the original Hair (my parents took me) and I now take my own son to the Public Theater. Just as I did for so many years, my son now stands in line with his own friends to see free Shakespeare in the park. Joe Papp gave us so much!  That’s why, when Tracie came to me with the idea of making a film on Joe, I agreed to collaborate. Yes, I thought we might complete it more quickly; but the film we imagined is finally made and despite all the detours, I can finally say, it was worth it. 

Another key line in our film is when playwright David Hare tells us “It was Joe who taught me to be radical at the center.  He wanted to storm the citadel because he believed that radical ideas are more important, that they could have greater impact, at the center.” Tracie and I share that belief. For us, to be radical at the center is the ultimate challenge; to win hearts and minds with an emotional narrative; to turn subversive ideas into a mainstream product; and to create art with impact, where it matters most. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my past work as a writer and filmmaker and it’s what I hope we achieve through our film on Joe. 

Here’s why Joe Papp matters: Joe was a game changer. Theater was his medium — but his real stage was American culture.  He turned his childhood passion for Shakespeare into a series of radical acts and he turned his radical acts into a series of mainstream successes. During his 40-plus years in the theater, he went from outsider to insider, from extreme poverty to a position of power, and yet he never lost his conviction that “great art is for everyone.” 

He believed that art could change lives, that it could influence society and increase social justice.  He brought more theater to more people than any other producer in history — but even more importantly, he trashed the old debates of elite versus popular culture and brought art to all people. In particular, he brought art to those he christened “the culturally dispossessed,” the kids so much like himself who had “not seen a living actor on the stage or been inside a concert hall or an art gallery.” 

He vowed to break down the wall between the have-nots and the arts – a wall spawned by poverty, ignorance, historical condition – and wound up creating a life-changing theater, one that was socially relevant, affordable, accessible, and inclusive. His first target was Shakespeare. He was unimpressed by rarified British productions, which were considered the norm, the good-for-you plays known as ‘cultural spinach.” 

Joe offered a highly energized American Shakespeare, a free Shakespeare, in parks and poor neighborhoods throughout New York City.  He cast minority actors without hesitation; he welcomed all accents and attitudes. And he did the same for contemporary theater. Distressed by the safe, whitebread fare offered by Broadway, he produced far more daring productions: black, white, Asian, Latino, almost always provocative, pushing the outer edges of both style and content. Some of them flopped, some became major hits. All of them stormed the citadel. 

Joe Papp in Five Acts is a co-Production of The Papp Project, THIRTEEN’s American Masters, and ITVS in association with WNET.  The program is slated to broadcst on PBS's American Masters in 2012.

From left to right:  Gail Papp, Meryl Streep, Karen Thorsen, Kevin Kline, and Tracie Holder

From left to right: Karen Thorsen, Suzan-Lori Parks, Oskar Eustis, Kevin Kline, Gail Papp, Jason Steven Cohen, and Tracie Holder

From left to right: Karen Thorsen, Oskar Eustis, Tracie Holder, and Kevin Kline


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