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Joe Papp in Five Acts

JOE PAPP IN FIVE ACTS, a feature-length documentary film tells the story of New York’s indomitable, street-wise champion of the arts who introduced interracial casting to the American stage and created free Shakespeare in the Park, Hair, and A Chorus Line.

From 1954 until his death in 1991, Joe Papp brought more theater to more people than any other producer in history. In his eyes, art was for everyone, not just a privileged few. “We have public libraries,” he would argue, “Why not public theaters?”

Papp recognized the role art could play in building a more democratic, diverse society. He was convinced that women and minorities, denied power elsewhere in society, could develop it on the stage.

For him, the arts were a bridge, crossing boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity.  His goal was a ‘theater of inclusion’: on-stage, backstage, and in the audience.

Papp gave us a world where Ntozake Shange could celebrate “colored girls,” where a woman could be “Hamlet” and James Earl Jones could be King Lear. He gave stages to veterans, prisoners, run­aways, and poets. He championed gay rights and shined a spotlight on AIDS in the height of the crisis by producing The Normal Heart when no one else would. He slashed ticket prices, and took art to the streets. He created the Festival Latino, which became the largest Hispanic theater festival in the world. 

At the same time, his personal story is riveting: a very poor boy who fell in love with Shakespeare and hid his immigrant roots for over twenty years, Papp became a tireless fighter for the arts who raised enduring debate about the value of the arts to the lives of all people and to the health of all communities.

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