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Location: Lincoln, Nebraska

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Joe Papp and Shakespeare in the Park

The American tradition of Free Shakespeare in public parks has its strongest foundation in the efforts and achievements of one man, Joseph Papp, in New York City.

After running a Shakespearean Workshop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Papp staged free productions of Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew in a nearby park. From the local community, he attracted audience members who had never seen a play before. From the New York Times, his plays garnered positive reviews, which attracted more experienced and well-to-do theater goers. So began The New York Shakespeare Festival. As educator and critic Julius Novick has observed (and Novick was a volunteer apprentice for early productions): “It was a simple idea, once somebody had thought of it, but it was Joe Papp whose example was imitated in city parks all over America.”

The Festival soon moved to Central Park; Papp later won a hard-fought victory over Robert Moses, New York City’s parks commissioner, who unsuccessfully demanded charging admission; Moses then became a surprising ally, joining with donor George Delacorte in building a permanent home for Free Shakespeare. The Delacorte Theatre opened in June 1962 with The Merchant of Venice – and is open to this day.

The list of actors who have graced the Delacorte stage is an impressive one, including Lauren Ambrose, Annette Bening, Andre Braugher, Blythe Danner, Keith David, Rosario Dawson, Ruby Dee, Colleen Dewhurst, Olympia Dukakis, Morgan Freeman, Marcia Gay Harden, Mariette Hartley, Anne Hathaway, Helen Hunt, William Hurt, Oscar Isaac, Chuk Iwuji, James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, Stacy Keach, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow, Audra McDonald, Janet McTeer, Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Phylicia Rashad, Liev Schreiber, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, Patrick Stewart, Corey Stoll, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Denzel Washington, Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes, and Diane Wiest.

Follow this link for audio and a transcript of an interview with Kenneth Turan about his oral history of the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival, Free for All.

You can follow this link to hear FSC Education Director Stephen Buhler connect Papp's innovations (including most of the backstory provided above) with developments in Nebraska. It's one of Steve's "Shakespeariences" for NET Radio, originally broadcast 2013-14.


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