A rock musical that captured the spirit of a generation. One of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. The introduction of an aggressive new form of tap that celebrated the history of the beat. Free performances of Shakespeare under the stars.
Hair; A Chorus Line; Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; and Free Shakespeare in the Park are just a few of the accomplishments of The Public Theater, now embarking upon its 50th anniversary year, which isn't bad for a playhouse that began not so much with a stated mission as with the zeal of one man to make the arts — Shakespeare, especially — available to all. That man was, of course, the late Joseph Papp, whose cultural bequest lives on today. As the institution (a word Papp would no doubt have hated) reflects with pride on its achievements, it can also look forward to amplifying its founder's vision in the decades ahead by embracing a breadth of work that will match, one hopes, an ever-broadening audience.
That's the fascinating synergy of The Public, as borne out over the years: its ability to concentrate, in a separate but equal manner, on Shakespeare, the classics and new work. Britain has the Royal Shakespeare Company, of course, which does the occasional new play alongside a steady diet of the Bard, and it has the Royal Court, a house devoted to new plays that over the years has done various exchanges with The Public.
But within the American theatre, The Public stands apart. Not many of its competing playhouses can boast productions on the order of the Sam Waterston-Kathleen Widdoes Much Ado About Nothing in 1972, followed by Irene Worth's magisterial Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (during Papp's Lincoln Center tenure in 1977), all the way up to the works of Larry Kramer, Anna Deavere Smith, Lisa Kron, Tony Kushner, Diana Son and Michael John LaChiusa, to name but a few of the writers and creators for whom The Public has been an artistic home. "I think I share a value with what The Public stands for," says Smith, one of a handful of Public Theater mainstays who took time for an interview to assess the institution then, now and to come. "To me, it is the possibility of combining excellence with the idea of 'public.' In our culture, we don't trust the idea of 'public-ness'; it's as if 'exclusive' and 'private' are where you find excellence." Smith first visited The Public in 1976, newly arrived in New York from San Francisco, to see Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls. "I remember this theatre peopled with African-American women, and it made me feel like it was a place I could go," she recalls.
"What Joe Papp was trying to do was very, very powerful," Smith continues. "And it's still alive — this idea that 'public' represents something open and excellent at the same time. That's what democracy should be all about. I wish I could find more places like The Public happening around the country." Smith, whose first Public success was Fires in the Mirror, will premiere her new show, Let Me Down Easy, at The Public next season.
Gail Papp, Joe's widow, retains her ties to the theatre as well. She is on its board and was co-chair of the search committee that recently appointed Oskar Eustis to be The Public's fourth artistic director. How has The Public changed? "I don't think Joe set out with a mission, as we understand it today in funding talk," she replies. "He did start out with an idea of the accessibility of arts to all people, regardless of color, race or economic lines."
That idea was made flesh with a production of Julius Caesar at the East River Amphitheater, an al fresco venue superseded in 1962 by The Public's annual summer occupancy of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Downtown at Lafayette Street is a warren of theatres — five, in total — of which the largest seats 299. That roster increased to six in 1998 with the opening of Joe's Pub, a cabaret venue adjacent to the main entrance that exists to showcase musicians and performers from around the world.
The collective result, says John Guare, whose long history with The Public includes this summer's revival of his 1971 Two Gentlemen of Verona, with music by Galt MacDermot, is that The Public has become a place where "people say, 'Let's just go down there.' It's the only theatre in New York where you say, 'Let's see what's happening.' That is also part of the brilliance of Joe's Pub." (A Chorus Line veteran Donna McKechnie is developing a tribute to The Public's musical history for Joe's Pub in the fall.)
Guare is someone who can address both strands of The Public's dual existence. In addition to Two Gents, which was a hit at the Delacorte and went on to win the 1972 Tony for Best Musical in its Broadway transfer, Guare was playwright-in-residence in The Public's 1975-76 season downtown and, in 2006, George C. Wolfe will direct his latest play, A Free Man of Color.
"This is the one American theatre," says Guare, "that has a real philosophy at its base, which has to do with theatre reaching out to people who are not the voices one normally hears. I think that the mission of bringing those voices has been more than honored with a whole new generation of gay, Asian, African-American and Latino performers, playwrights and directors."
One of those actors is Jimmy Smits, who has performed two plays downtown and two in Central Park. (He got his Equity card understudying Horatio in Papp's own production of Hamlet, starring Diane Venora.) "The Public has been entirely influential in terms of me making a decision to continue in this career," says Smits, who now sits on its board. Growing up in Brooklyn, he recalls, "we went to see a lot of different Broadway plays, but there was something about the voice The Public had that kind of called me, and when I saw people that were representative of the city in terms of the ethnic diversity of the city all engaged in the classics, it gave me permission to aspire to the dream I had."
Tony Award-winning actor Liev Schreiber has also worked frequently for The Public: three roles uptown, three downtown, all by Shakespeare, including Hamlet, Iago and Henry V. "It shaped my career absolutely," says Schreiber. "Probably George C. Wolfe did as much as The Public, but I guess they're one and the same, or they always have been to me." Schreiber and Smits are direct heirs to the likes of Kevin Kline, Raul Julia and Meryl Streep, among many others: actors whose careers would be unimaginable without The Public, and who now go there to do plays other New York addresses rarely produce. (Streep returns to Central Park in summer 2006, for instance, to play the title role in Mother Courage.)
In a sense, says Oskar Eustis, who, this season, followed Wolfe into the artistic director's chair, "I don't think The Public's mission has changed. But the ways we execute that mission have of necessity changed — what it means to be a theatre devoted to political engagement." Of course, as Gail Papp points out, her husband had little time for "political theatre in the narrow definition: he got many political plays he had no interest in doing," she says. "He was interested in an artistic theatre that had some kind of social relevance, and that social relevance was very, very broad."
Instead, The Public's politics — with a small "p" — lie in a commitment to inclusion and cultural embrace that couldn't be more important in these exclusionary times in which we live. Says Eustis: "Shakespeare, in addition to his completely iconic status, is also the most social of playwrights, and this theatre has always aspired to create new work that is as socially engaged as Shakespeare's," which is to say, of value to a sizable yet diverse public. "The most important thing we have is our name," Eustis says, "and the legitimacy the name confers." What's in a name? or so asked Shakespeare. At The Public, a lot.
Matt Wolf is an American theatre critic and journalist based in London. He has been going to The Public and Shakespeare in the Park regularly since 1975.