Saturday, April 28, 2012

Joe Papp Doc A Class Act

Playing at Tribeca Film Festival

Joe Papp Doc A Class Act

(from 4/29/12)

Joepappkarenphoto.jpg Karen Thorsen, photo by Danny Peary
Joseph Papp has been dead for twenty years yet he continues to be a major force in New York and other cities that promote public theater. Everyone who loves theater realizes they owe Papp a debt, including documentarians Tracie Holder (last picture) and Karen Thorsen (first picture) and the celebrities they have gathered to celebrate him in their inspiring, heartfelt movie Joe Papp in Five Acts. You'll be able to see Holder and Thorsen's film on PBS next year, but there's no reason to wait that long when you can see the world premiere on a big screen this Sunday (4/29) at the Tribeca Film Festival. Be sure to catch it at the AMC Loews Village at 66 3rd Avenue at 11th Street. The other day Thorsen had to rush back to the editing room to assure the film would be finished in time for tomorrow's debut, but we did this quick interview.
Danny Peary: What does it mean to you to have a Joe Papp film at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday?
Karen Thorsen: Well, this is an extraordinary festival and it's great to have the world premiere in the city where Joe Papp was born and did all of his work.
DP: Was he from New York?
KT: He was from Brooklyn. His parents were from Lithuania--but there's a reveal in the film I don't want to give away. Imagine him growing up with English not being his first language. He had a teacher who introduced him to Shakespeare and he'd go to the library to read his plays. He didn't know they were in Old English, he just thought it was how people spoke English then. Then he found out people no longer spoke that way.
DP: Are you from New York?
KT: I live in Connecticut but I was born in New York and saw Joe Papp plays all my life. And now my son stands in line. It's amazing how the tradition goes on. There's still the Public Theater on Lafayette, there's also Shakespeare in the Park. He died twenty years ago but his legacy lives on.
DP: Are you surprised that many people don't know he's dead or haven't heard of him?
KT: A lot of people don't know who he is but they know his institutions, and they believe in what he believed without understanding that he's the guy that really started the idea of free Shakespeare. He started it on a truck in the fifties, going to the five boroughs of Manhattan, and getting a permit to put on a play in a park or local square. So all these kids, including blacks and Latinos, would come out to see Shakespeare. The wouldn't know that Romeo and Juliet die in the end and shout, "Don't do it!
DP: What do you think is the most important thing to remember about him?
KT: What's most important is that he believed art should be for the people, that theater should be like the public library and people could see a play for free.
Q: Who funded his work?
KT: He had a lot of friends and got a great deal of non-profit funding, government funding, and funding from organizations who believed in Joe, patrons of the arts, and actors who got their start with him. So many people were grateful to Joe and wanted to pay him back. They also helped us over the years it has taken us make the film. The list was so long that we couldn't put them all in the credits.
DP: You have Meryl Streep and an impressive group of famous people talking about him in the movie.
KT: All of them have a story to tell. They got their starts with him. In our electronic press kit, there is a huge quote by Kevin Spacey. And there are others. All of these people believed in him.
DP: How come there are five acts?
KT: We had six acts at one point but it's a classic play structure. We had enough to say about him.
DP: What was your motivation for spending years working on this film?
KT: Joe Papp had an extraordinary personal story and an extraordinary passion in something I believe in, which is that art should be for everyone. Art shouldn't be just for the elite, it should belong to everyone. In these difficult economic times that's an especially important issue and we need people to talk about it. If they see this film, I think they'll talk about money for the arts.
DP: Why is that important to you?
KT: Because I like the intersection of art and social justice. I did a film on James Baldwin, who wrote and worked on civil rights, and I'm making a film about Thomas Paine, who did the same thing for democracy, writing and then starting the American Revolution. Joe Papp did it for the arts. He wasn't a writer but he was an impresario who had a social conscience. And he had an intense and complex life, so Tracie Holder and I got to tell a good story and tell a message. There is one important line in the film where the British playwright David Hare says Joe Papp taught him to be radical at the center. I really love that line and it was almost the title of the film.
joepapptracie.jpg Tracie Holder
DP: Do you consider this film to be political?
KT: It's about social justice, it's about the politics of race and inclusion, it's about the economics of art for everyone. But it's also a biography about a very complex, wonderful guy, who really was radical at the center.

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