‘American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts’ honors NYC’s champion of the arts

Credit: Joe Skinner

As part of its American Masters series, PBS debuts Joe Papp in Five Acts — which examines the groundbreaking career of producer/director Joe Papp, who founded Manhattan’s famed Shakespeare in the Park festival and The Public Theater. He went on to produce signature Broadway Productions like Hair and A Chorus Line.

Martin Sheen, who starred in Papp’s production of Hamlet in 1967 at New York’s Public Theater, tells ABC Audio Papp’s influence was a game-changer for theatre.

“He was a force that managed to reach such a wide audience in the culture, with culture. He started that with the New York Shakespeare Festival and insisted that there be no charge so that the common people could have access and it worked, says Sheen. He notes Papp overcame many obstacles, including then-parks commissioner Robert Moses, who saw a chance to profit off the productions.

The Grace and Frankie actor adds that for three decades Papp not only changed American theatre, but thousands of lives as well. “Night after night I would look out into the audience in Central Park when I was playing there and you’d see Black and brown, and old and young, and rich and poor, and male and female all in one place and they all got it,” Sheen recalls.

Sheen says Papp’s early work came at a time of great turmoil in American history, and his productions needed to reflect that.

“Reverend [Martin Luther] King had just been assassinated, we had already lost Bobby Kennedy earlier. John Kennedy had been killed a few years before that. We were involved in a very, very intense war in Vietnam and there was great upheaval in the culture, and so he was trying to reflect that,” says Sheen. (AUDIO IS ABC 1-ON-1)

American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts premieres Friday on PBS.

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