Aspen Ideas Festival honors theater pioneer |

Aspen Ideas Festival honors theater pioneer

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Contributed photo"Joe Papp in Five Acts," a documentary about the founder of New York's Public Theater, shows Sunday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

ASPEN – Tracie Holder, co-director of “Joe Papp in Five Acts,” a documentary about the founder of The Public Theater, expresses worry over how the film will be received outside New York.

“A film about a commie Jew who embraced blacks and gays and women and Hispanics – how’s that going to play in the mainstream?” Holder, who was raised in Brooklyn and lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said Thursday afternoon on a patio at the Aspen Meadows. “I feel like we live in a provincial bubble in New York and are not always completely in synch with the culture outside the city, the thinking and the politics.”

Papp, who died in 1991, was one of those die-hard New Yorkers; watching the film (which Holder co-directed and co-produced with Karen Thorsen), it is easily possible to come to the conclusion that the impresario never once set foot out of the city. Yet his life – and the film, which screens Sunday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival and which simultaneously kicks off the “New Views: Documentaries and Dialogue” series – never feels as if it’s being played out on a small, confined stage. Papp, who was born in Brooklyn and established The Public in Greenwich Village as well as the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for summer presentations of Shakespeare in the Park, was a big thinker who acted on broad, inclusive ideas. He championed the idea that art should be freely available, modeling his organization on a public library. He brought productions into New York’s outer boroughs, reaching out to audiences who had never seen live theater. He embraced actors and playwrights from the fringes of the drama world.

Perhaps most significant, he wasn’t sealed inside the theater. Papp produced plays about what was happening outside the theater walls, including “Hair,” about the Vietnam War and the ’60s counterculture, the black feminist piece “For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf” and “The Normal Heart,” a play that, in 1985, was a bold look at the AIDS crisis.

“There wasn’t any divide between art and life,” said Holder, who will appear at Sunday’s screening and participate in a Q-and-A with Oskar Eustis, the current artistic director of the Public. “What was happening in the theaters was happening out in society. Papp took courageous stands – he was part of the antiwar movement, gay rights, spoke out about AIDS. He used his platform as a megaphone for the issues of our time.”

“Joe Papp in Five Acts,” which had its premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, is loaded with historic footage that brings its subject to life; in a sea of documentaries that depend on talking head commentary, “Joe Papp” stands out for its wealth of vivid source material. (Holder notes that The Public Theater had four full-time archivists; when the film was given to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, it was the largest single collection ever given to that branch of the library.)

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But one colorful anecdote that didn’t make the cut in the 86-minute film was how Papp, the son of poor immigrants, got interested in theater. Serving on a Navy carrier during World War II, Papp noticed the huge elevator used to raise airplanes to the flight deck; it reminded him of a stage. Bored with military routine, he began staging Vaudeville-type entertainment on the elevator. (Among his troupe: Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse.) Papp went on to study at the Actor’s Lab on the GI Bill. In 1954, driven by memories of his impoverished childhood and of his communist ideals, he founded the New York Shakespeare Festival on a vision of providing free theater. His 1956 production of “The Taming of the Shrew” earned an emphatically positive review in The New York Times, launching Papp and the Public into prominence. In the late ’60s, he established a permanent home for his theater in a Greenwich Village building that had been the Astor Library and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Among those affected by Papp’s drive was Holder. In 1976, when she was 16, her class at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School was given free tickets to see a Public Theater production at Lincoln Center. Holder recalls what she saw as though it were yesterday: “The Threepenny Opera,” starring Raul Julia.

“I’d never seen a play that links politics to art in such an exhilarating way,” Holder said. “I don’t think I’d seen political art before. It was life-altering.”

Holder went into politics working for progressive Democratic candidates. As a staff member for Liz Holtzman, a former U.S. representative from New York City, Holder helped organize a benefit event with readings by women writers on the subject of women. Susan Sontag, playwright John Guare and actor Ruby Dee were agreeable; Joe Papp insisted on reading from “The Merchant of Venice,” arguing that the heroine Portia was the strongest woman in literature. Holder finally convinced Papp to read from a play about the anarchist Emma Goldman.

When Holder tired of money’s corrupting of politics, she looked for another way to be politically involved. After Papp died, she began researching and discovered there had been no documentary made of his life.

Holder is pleased to note that “Joe Papp in Five Acts,” which has been screened at the Berkshires Film Festival and at SilverDocs, a festival near Washington, D.C., was co-produced by PBS/American Masters and funded in part by the NEA.

“Papp reminds us how important it is that we have collective culture,” Holder said. “And how much we benefit from having a public sphere and a public recognition of the importance of the arts. That a film about Papp would be supported by public funds, that’s a tribute to what Papp is about.”

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