Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Joe Papp

So, obviously, I'm a fan. And a New Yorker, to boot. Which means that I have some thoughts on this piece by Don Shirley (h/t Rob at the Wicked Stage).

I admit that I have very, very little objectivity about Joe Papp and the Public Theater. Shakespeare in the Park looms large in my childhood and Joe Papp is one of my theatrical heroes. I read someone basically saying he wasn't all that and my hackles go up and I'm ready to rumble. But I take a deep breath and count to ten and don't just start swinging. Still, at the risk of angering the Great Prof, I think there's an argument to be made that Joe Papp and the Public Theater did indeed make theatre "accessible and essential" on a national scale.

We're not talking about some 99-seat black box on the West Side here. The New York Shakespeare Festival was and is a major player, a major institution that set a standard. And not the least of it was an idea that was pretty uncommon in 1959: free Shakespeare in public parks. This is now a summer staple for a lot of cities and while Joe Papp didn't invent the concept, he was its most high-profile champion. He used it to build the whole theatre. This alone goes a long way to making him one of the seminal figures in post-war American theatre.

But Papp did more than that, by building a theatre that was passionately political, intensely progressive, endlessly supportive of artists and, at the same time, extremely successful. Bringing the world Hair is almost a major achievement in itself, but to follow it up with about fifteen years of similarly important productions and discovering and supporting a string of significant artists, that's pretty much unheard of. The Public's place in the pantheon is pretty secure and more than of just local interest.

A third thing that I think can get laid at his feet is something less than great: he's the model for an entire generation of artistic directors, not always in the best way. He was a passionate, committed man who was also a megalomaniac, more than a bit paranoid and controlling. The theatre survived on the force of his personality as much as anything else and rose and fell with his passion and vision. That model, the charismatic leader model, is one of the things that's gotten us into the messes we're in now.

All of that being said, I can see what Don and Rob are complaining about. The history of American theatre in the '60s and '70s has a lot of big names, big figures and important people. Joe Papp didn't make theatre accessible and essential all by himself or in a vacuum. But he did, indeed, make theatre essential and accessible and for more than just New York City.

In summation, Joe Papp never took crap.

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