Joseph Papp (1921-1991), called by Newsweek “the single most creative and controversial figure in American theater,” founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954—the first company in the United States to offer free productions of Shakespeare, with an emphasis on an American style of performance. The Festival performed in New York City’s parks and, in 1962, opened its permanent, open-air home in Central Park, the Delacorte Theater. In 1967, Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival expanded as The Public Theater opening a second home in the landmark Astor Library building in the East Village. The company renovated the building to house five theaters dedicated to the production of new works by American playwrights, becoming one of the pioneers of the nonprofit theater movement in New York City and across the U.S.
During his 37-year tenure, Papp launched over 900 productions which changed the face of American theater, both nonprofit and commercial, by producing groundbreaking works by American playwrights from a range of backgrounds, among them No Place To Be Somebody (the first Pulitzer awarded to an African-American playwright), Sticks and Bones, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, The Normal Heart, and A Chorus Line, which ran on Broadway for 16 years.
Known for his interest in works engaging contemporary social issues and his pioneering commitment to non-traditional casting, Papp extended the influence and audiences of contemporary theater by transferring groundbreaking plays to Broadway and nonprofit theaters across the U.S., initiating tours and foreign productions, as well as television and film adaptations, and instituting the International Latino Festival. For four years he also served as the producer of Lincoln Center Theater.
Papp fostered the talent of many great American actors (George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Raúl Juliá, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, Gloria Foster, Estelle Parsons, Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen, and Al Pacino), playwrights (David Rabe, Charles Gordone, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang, Elizabeth Swados, Wallace Shawn, Tony Kushner, and Larry Kramer) and directors (Richard Foreman, Andre Serban, George C. Wolfe, Mike Nichols, James Lapine, Michael Greif, JoAnne Akalaitis, Gerald Freedman, and Wilford Leach). He championed experimental theater, providing performance space for Mabou Mines and the Ontological-Hysteric at The Public.
Born Joseph Papirofsky in Brooklyn, he was the son of immigrant parents, Shmuel and Yetta, from Poland and Lithuania. After graduating from high school, he entered the U.S. Navy during World War II, subsequently studying at and becoming managing director of the Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1950. He also directed 34 plays, taught at Yale and Long Island University, and received honorary doctorates from several universities, including NYU and Brandeis. An activist and tireless defender of artistic freedom, he battled against the National Endowment for the Arts’ attempts to impose restrictions on artists. He married Gail Merrifield Papp, creator and director of The Public’s Department of Play and Musical Development from 1965-1991, in 1976.