Interview: Karen Thorsen & Tracie Holder, “Joe Papp in Five Acts”

Posted by Anna Husted on 1.13.2013


Tracie Holder, Kevin Kline and Karen Thorsen.

“The Public Theater… I named it after you.” —Radio announcement before one of Joe Papp’s plays.

Director Tracie Holder is a filmmaker and consultant for Women Make Movies and Active Voice. Her latest work, in collaboration with director Karen Thorsen, explores the life of arts champion Joe Papp and features interviews and performances by actors and playwrights including Meryl Streep, James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, David Rabe, and many more. Joe Papp in Five Acts screens Monday at 1:30pm and 6:00pm in the Walter Reade Theater as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. This documentary is a must-see for patrons of the arts and lovers of New York history and culture. Holder and Thorsen shared their thoughts on funding for the arts, Shakespeare, working with their cinematographer and editors, and their personal experiences with Papp.

How did you get involved with telling Joe Papp’s story? It’s a project that has been going on for awhile, right?

Tracie Holder: Probably the longest film in the history of documentary film. Mercifully it’s done.

Karen Thorsen: It took longer than expected to make. Tracie always reminds me that I was breast feeding when I first met her and now my son is a sophomore in college. (laughing)

TH: I came to film from politics and I had the good fortune of meeting Joe Papp in politics. I had organized a benefit that was an evening of reading works by women about women and it was for a candidate I was working for who Papp supported. We had Susan Sontag, Ruby Dee, and Joe Papp, amongst others. Susan Sontag read from Virginia Woolf, Ruby Dee made up her own political Mother Goose poems, and Joe Papp called me and he wanted to read from The Merchant of Venice. I said, "Mr. Papp, it’s an evening of works by women about women." He argued that Portia was the strongest woman in all of literature. He regaled me with soliloquies from Shakespeare, but I held firm. He got indignant and said, "You find something then." I was a young political operative, so what did I know about theater? I went to a theater bookstore and I spent three days reading anything I could find by a woman and I found a play on the life of Emma Goldman. So the first time I met Joe Papp, he was Emma Goldman.

Several years later I ended up working for Harvey Gantt who was an African-American man running against Jesse Helms for the senate. By that time Joe Papp was very sick, but nobody wanted to see Helms defeated more than Papp. I was in the New York campaign office and we ended up working together on that and, soon after he died, that’s when I first started thinking about making a film about him. Karen made a film in 1989 about James Baldwin, which I had seen and quite liked. After several years of doing research on Papp and getting support from the people at the Public Theater, I approached her about working on the film.

KT: Tracie needed to find a filmmaker and the key to our creative collaboration was that we wanted to make a documentary without narration. We have this extraordinary oral history from the archives that allowed us to let Joe tell his own story. I come from a history of working with the Maysles Brothers and their idea of cinéma vérité. Let people be and let them tell their story. It’s more like cinéma vérité passé now, but it’s a vibrant form of storytelling.

The film surprised me in some ways because I had no idea how much influence he had on public theater.

TH: It’s an amazing story. It’s such a New York story and it’s social history—everything that was happening in the city and country in the 60s. I grew up in Brooklyn and when I was growing up Papp was this larger than life character, an unofficial mayor of New York. He really dominated not only theater, but every social cause. He was out there fighting. There really isn’t anyone now who has that same grand persona, who straddles the world of the arts and the world of social issues. Theater continues to uphold this mission of social issues, but Papp was leading every protest and organizing groups to go to Washington. You wanted to follow him and be a part of what he was a part of. I was completely caught up in that. I hope this film inspires people to want to pick up where he left off.

The film is very relevant even though it’s about Vietnam and then the AIDS epidemic, but I kept thinking about healthcare reform and Papp being a socialist and President Obama being called a socialist for wanting healthcare reform.

TH: Absolutely. Anytime somebody is fighting for social justice an easy way to shut them down is to call them a socialist or communist. The thing about Papp is he defined it on his own terms. For him, being a communist meant that when people were thrown out of their homes during the Great Depression, or if people were living on the streets with their furniture, it meant you put their furniture back into their apartments and you fought to make sure they stayed in their homes. The Occupy movement is that. People have said: OK, these are our communities and we have to protect them. Papp would have been there. Without him we have to take responsibility.

It’s interesting that his first social cause was to get theater to the public, because art has to push the boundaries for social boundaries to then be opened up. 

TH: Absolutely. And that makes even more sense because Papp didn’t grow up reading Shakespeare. He felt that everyone should have the experience that he had. The personal inspires us. His life changed because of the arts and he wanted to change everybody else’s lives, particularly those who couldn’t afford theater. For those of us who grow up in middle class homes, that’s part of our lives. I mean we’re sitting in Julliard right now. He wanted that experience extended to people who couldn’t have that experience. That is unique about what he did. No one else felt that sense of commitment to people of those communities. It’s beautiful, those trucks going out into those poor neighborhoods, bringing them Shakespeare.

That archival footage is incredible.

TH: It was the single largest collection the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts ever received. Papp had four full-time archivists.

It was all his personal footage?

TH: It was the Public Theater’s, but it was Papp who hired the archivists. He said, "theater is an ephemeral art." So once you put on a play, it’s done. There is no record. He felt one theater in America should have a documented history. So every script of Hair, every audio recording from the gypsies from A Chorus Line is all preserved at the public library.

Wow. That is amazing.

TH: It is pretty amazing. For about two weeks we had the original script of Hair in our apartment. It was exciting. We were both sure the cat was going to get ahold of it or there was going to be a fire. (Laughing). That was probably the most priceless thing we’ve had in the apartment. It was James Rado’s hand-typed copy with his notes in the margins. In fact, a few pages from it are in the film. What really drew me to documentary is I wanted to express ideas in ways that weren’t verbal. I could see ideas, but words were limiting. For this film we hired cinematographer Jem Cohen, who does all of R.E.M.’s music videos, and he shot in Super 8. Some of what looks archival was actually shot for the film. We wanted things that were not literal, but were suggestive. We shot all these images of Brooklyn, clotheslines, the waterfront, which gives it a timeless feel rather than stock footage, like when you say someone grew up in the deprerssion and then you cut to a shot of a soup kitchen line; we really wanted something that was particular to the spirit we were hoping to evoke in the film.

KT: Jem Cohen is an artist in Super 8. It’s grainier and there is only one lab in New York that can develop the film. We had other cinematographers that shot in 16mm (Toshi Ozawa), and a lot of people passed through the project because it took us so long. But the Super 8 shots capture a mood we were going for. I’m a big believer in creating a mood and putting filmmaking in the hands of the people. I have no compunction about mixing types of film if it serves the story. So Super 8 makes the present feel past and the story is aiming to make the past feel present.

The shots of Central Park with Kevin Kline speaking Shakespeare’s words struck me in particular.

TH: We have these parks that are public, just like the library, which are places to share. Poor people didn’t have country housing, they couldn’t leave for the summer, and the parks became the people’s playgrounds. One of the things that we wanted the film to talk about is the public funding of the arts in this time of economic crisis. The arts are the easiest thing to cut because they are seen as a luxury. But in the end, it is what is lasting in a society. Papp understood the importance of the arts to people’s lives. And, as you pointed out, that’s why he started where he started. He made his home in theater. Since I came from a political bent I never understood why he was in theater because he was such a political animal. Only through working on the film was I illuminated and came to realize the importance of culture to transform people’s lives—that’s where it starts. Art can really change people’s lives in meaningful ways.

KT: Joe’s belief was that the arts were for the “culturally dispossessed.” There were kids who hadn’t seen a living actor and he wanted to break that wall of art poverty through public theater. Without government assistance the arts is hard to fund. It’s terribly important.

I agree. The film kind of comes to this conclusion that Papp was a Shakespearean character himself, which brings the whole documentary together. He’s a hero, but with that comes flaws.

TH: Yes. That is what attracted me to him. It’s because he was a real character. He was larger than life, but people hated him. He was working class. He was as human as the rest of us, but still did great things. Maybe we can’t do what Papp did, but we can do something. New York has definitely changed without him.

Right. He was pushing all the boundaries with theater.

TH: Everything has become so commercial, but I have heard people say that Papp could not have done what he did today, because the economics have changed. But he did also change the equation of how Broadway operated by doing workshops. It does seem like you can only do a revival of a play or musical if you know it is going to be a sure hit, or if it’s from England it’s got "culture" written all over it. That is exactly what Papp was fighting. He wanted to take Shakespeare off the pedestal and make him American. I came to really value what Papp did with theater.

Did you know that you were going to have Kevin Kline performing?

TH: All of the actors did performance pieces. The only one we ended up using was Kevin’s, and that was the idea of one of our editors. The original idea was to have each person we interviewed share what Shakespearean character Papp reminded them of. But Kevin Kline’s performances just happened to work with each of our chapter openings. But we have Meryl Streep doing these beautiful sonnets and those will all be DVD extras. We were so lucky. The thing I really appreciated about everyone we interviewed was how they talked about him, warts and all. They loved him because they knew him. I admired that.


Poster artwork by Paul Davis.

Having the performances in documentaries works very well. It reminds me of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke.

TH: Right. That’s Sam Pollard. Spike asks people to close their eyes and to conjure memories and evoke somebody that they’re talking about from memory. So when I interviewed people I used that same technique. It’s amazing how vivid people’s descriptions were. The theater where we shot the interviews was the theater where Meryl Streep had her first audition. So she was in her early 20s and they were all in the beginning of their careers when they started with Papp. Here was this man who believed in them. Now it’s 30 years later and they’re looking back on their lives in this space. They have the critical distance of age and time and they can look back on this man who had been so central at that critical moment in their lives. They were showing their love for him and we were just lucky to be there to capture it.

KT: You need to get people to not just tell their set pieces. We knew a great deal about the roles people played in Joe’s life, but what informed the structure of our story is that no one knew he was Jewish. He actively hid that. The man who believed in inclusivity of all artists was himself so traumatized and ashamed of his life because he saw his father continually humiliated for his heritage. The fact that being Jewish was revealed because of The Merchant of Venice shaped our interviews. So when we talked about that it became moving and emotional because of its connection with art.

This documentary is encouraging for younger people who are seeing actors and playwrights who have become really successful, but they were talking about a time when they were struggling.

TH: They didn’t know they would have the careers that they had. It gives perspective. He liked to plant seeds and give an artist a body of work. I don’t know any one person who is doing that today.

Who did the artwork that introduces each chapter?

TH: That is a well known graphic designer named Paul Davis. Paul Davis did all of the theater posters for Papp and actually at Lincoln Center theater for many years. Those were the first theater posters because, before Papp, it wasn’t standard practice to have posters around the city showing what play was coming up. They were on every subway and every bus shelter. Paul Davis told me that Joe felt that those posters were another form of public art and another way to give art to the public. For people who couldn’t go to the shows they would still have these beautiful images in their communities.

Which Shakespearean character does he remind you of?

TH: I agree with Kevin Kline in that he said he was like Henry V, rallying the troops and going into the fight. That was where he was when he was most alive. He was like a good general who inspired people to action. There’s a line Bernie Gersten said that is unfortunately not in the film: "Joe didn’t dwell in the breach, he lived there." He was surrounded by people who went to Harvard or big schools, but I think the people he felt closest to were actors like Al Pacino, who was also a working class man who found a place in the arts. People who have edge.

KT: Playwright David Rabe said Joe was “radical at the center.” Instead of preaching to the converted he talked to people who didn’t share his convictions, to shake them up because he too started as an outsider. Joe turned these radical messages into the mainstream. It allowed him to be groundbreaking. He stormed the citadel. We wanted to practice and present the secret to "radical at the center"—to get the audience to care about something they didn’t even know they cared about.

Joe Papp in Five Acts screens January 14 at 1:30pm and 6:00pm in the Walter Reade Theater as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival.

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