Free For All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told

free for allThe Short Version: An oral history of Joseph Papp’s life – and, perhaps more accurately, the life of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater.

The Review: I’ve been working at The Public for eight months now and it’s a little embarrassing that I’m only just now getting to this book.  I mean, The Public Theater is the most important theater in the country.  Even in a lull – and all theaters have lulls – this theater still holds a level of prestige that other theaters are hard pressed to match.  Sure, maybe Donmar Warehouse has had a better run of it internationally in the last few years… but whatever.  The Public is still just this absolutely amazing institution where so many historical things have happened and where they continue to happen.  But how did it all come to be?

That’s the story of this book, of course.  The thing you realize very early on is a two-fold uniqueness.  One, the time was unique – the idea of a not-for-profit theater was unheard of… and two, Joe Papp was unique.  There has not been a mind like his before or since – and I don’t know that we’ll see his like ever again.  Almost certainly not in my lifetime.  Oh, to’ve been around at the height of his time at The Public… that’s when things would’ve been really good.  He was putting the most impressive works onto all six of The Public’s stages and he was making sure that new people were given just as much of a chance as the regulars.  Hearing stories directly from the mouths of people like Sam Waterston, Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen, Tom Aldredge, David Rabe – these people who were young and brash and crazy and Joe gave them a shot and they ran with it.  That doesn’t happen often enough anymore.

To be honest, I think Joe would be pretty pissed at the state of the Art today. Those chances aren’t taken anymore – certainly not at the major institutional theaters, anyway.  Part of this is a selfish thing – I know that I could audition for Joe and get cast in a Shakespeare or something and turn out a pretty amazing career… but I’d have to have been born 20 years earlier than I was for that to even be a glimmer of a chance of a thing.  And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
But more importantly, the fact that the system has become such a behemoth… the unions cripple us, the city cripples us, the institution we’ve built up around ourselves cripples us.  The overwhelming sense that comes out of this book is that is used to be the sort of thing where you had an idea and you just did it – because no one had done it before.  You broke the rules, broke the law, did what you had to – and apologized after the fact if you got in trouble for it.  But man oh man was it all about just doing it for the sake of doing it back then.  The stories that these people tell!  Even shows that got bad reviews or were catastrophic disasters on a personal level – it was all about just betting it all on every spin of the wheel.  That sort of wild energy has been lost in today’s Theater Profession.  Instead, we’ve got people flocking to the increasingly terrible dreck that clutters midtown Manhattan – or fleeing to tiny beat-up ‘theaters’ in Brooklyn to do ‘avant-garde’ work – because the real intelligent work, the things that garnered the reputations that places like The Public have cemented…  that stuff is in short supply these days and even when a piece or a player does come around, the institutions aren’t ready to support them.  So they flee to Brooklyn or Broadway and brilliance is lost.  Joe Papp was all about taking chances and fighting the system before it even became a system.  The NYSF was Joe and his legacy towers over all of us working there today.  Even brilliant men like George Wolfe and Oskar Eustis are only playing at being the King that Joe inherently was.

Rating: 5+ out of 5.  A little long at times… but an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to do theater.  The stories that are told and the dreams that are fulfilled in those stories are too good to be missed.  It simultaneously inspires you to do great work and makes you wish that you were born in a different decade so that the opportunities to do great work were so much more prevalent.

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