American Masters Documentary Pulls Back the Curtain on the Life and Legacy of Joe Papp

American Masters Documentary Pulls Back the Curtain on the Life and Legacy of Joe Papp

As the founder of The Public Theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park and producer of groundbreaking shows like Hair, A Chorus Line and for colored girls…, street-wise champion for the arts Joe Papp believed great art was for everyone, not just for the privileged few. American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts tells the story of this cultural change agent who worked for more than 50 years 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 David Hare (The Hours, The Reader, Plenty), 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.

The film, directed, produced and written by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, aims to keep the legacy of this larger-than-life visionary alive and spark a national conversation about what it means to be an American and the role of art in a democracy for a new generation.

American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts premieres on Friday, June 3, at 9pm on CET, ThinkTV16, CET Arts, the station’s livestreams and on the PBS Video App. The program will encore on CET Arts at 10:30pm on Sunday, June 5.