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S36 Ep4

Joe Papp in Five Acts

Premiere: 6/3/2022 | 00:01:42 |

Joe Papp, founder of The Public Theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park and producer of groundbreaking plays like "Hair," "A Chorus Line" and "for colored girls," created a 'theater of inclusion' based on the belief that great art is for everyone.

About the Episode

Joe Papp in Five Acts Pulls Back the Curtain on the Career, Social Vision and Impact of The Public Theater’s Joe Papp.

Ahead of the 60th Anniversary Season of Free Shakespeare in The Park at New York City’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts tells the story of this indomitable, street-wise champion of the arts. As founder of The Public Theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park and producer of groundbreaking plays like Hair, A Chorus Line and for colored girls…, Papp believed great art was for everyone, not just a privileged few. A cultural change agent for more than fifty years, Papp’s stages held up a mirror to society with work that reflected the reality of people’s lives. Directed, produced and written by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts premieres nationwide Friday, June 3 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), and the PBS Video app as part of #PBSForTheArts.

More than perhaps any other cultural figure in recent history, Papp worked to expand public access to the arts. “We have public libraries,” he would argue, “Why not public theaters?” Papp recognized the role artists could play in building a more democratic, inclusive society. At a time when theatre was largely the domain of white men, he was convinced that women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and other marginalized communities, denied power elsewhere in society, could develop it on the stage. His goal was a “theater of inclusion” on-stage, backstage, and in the audience.

Featuring rare footage from the 50s to Papp’s death in 1991 and up-close scenes from the performances themselves, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts tells his story without narration. His great accomplishments and his own, often tumultuous, personal history are told by the artists he helped create—and, in some cases, tried to destroy—including James Earl Jones (the Star Wars trilogy, The Lion King), Kevin Kline (Dave, A Fish Called Wanda), Larry Kramer (playwright, The Normal Heart, The Destiny of Me), Mandy Patinkin (Sunday in the Park with George, Homeland), Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, West Wing), Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, Mamma Mia), Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction) and George C. Wolfe (director Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, former Artistic Director of The Public Theater), among others.

Using his life and work as its prism, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts, aims to keep the legacy of this larger-than-life visionary alive and spark a national conversation about what it means to be American and the role of art in a democracy for a new generation.

"Most courage comes out of fear. I’ll tell you that. You're fighting to stay alive."

American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts is a production of The Papp Project, LLC in association with American Masters Pictures. Directed by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen. Produced and written by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen. Susan Lacy and Michael Kantor are executive producers for American Masters.

About American Masters
Now in its 37th season on PBS, American Masters illuminates the lives and creative journeys of those who have left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape—through compelling, unvarnished stories. Setting the standard for documentary film profiles, the series has earned widespread critical acclaim: 28 Emmy Awards—including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special—two News & Documentary Emmys, 14 Peabodys, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, an Oscar, and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of more than 250 masters past and present, the American Masters website offers full episodes, film outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the podcast American Masters: Creative Spark, educational resources, digital original series and more. The series is a production of The WNET Group.

American Masters is available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; newsroom NJ Spotlight News; and FAST channel PBS Nature. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for more than 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.


Major funding for American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ford Foundation and LusEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust. Additional funding provided by National Foundation for Jewish Culture, New York State Council for the Arts, The Better Angels Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Estate of Roland Karlen, The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation, Humanities New York, Ettinger Foundation, Inc., Vital Projects Fund.

Original series production funding for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Cheryl & Philip Milstein family, Judith & Burton Resnick, Seton J. Melvin, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Vital Projects Fund, Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen & James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Koo and Patricia Yuenand public television viewers.


- I must do something that has some value.

I can't just can't be in show business.

I just don't do shows.

They must have meaning.

(upbeat music) - [Announcer] Here in Central Park, New York, Papp's Shakespeare performances are absolutely free.

The only way to get a seat is to queue for it.

- Why don't we charge admission?

This is considered important to the, to the life of the city, the educational life.

- Joe Papp was saying, this is the way art should be.

I mean this is public theater that was public, it was free.

- I felt even a quarter would be too much.

- [Actor] What dreadful dole is here!

Eyes, do you see? How can it be?

(woman yelling) - [Woman] Oh me.

- He thought if I'm King Lear, then everybody else can be.

- Joe wanted to fill the stage with the same kind of people he was gonna fill the audience with, all the people of the city.

(audience applauding) - He felt that his theater could lead an army, that he could fight the good fight, that he could put his theater on a tank and lead a division.

(fast upbeat music)


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