PBS documentary ‘American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts’ features the life and work of the founder of Off-Broadway’s Public Theater

To commemorate this summer’s 60th anniversary season of Free Shakespeare in The Park, presented at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, PBS is broadcasting a new documentary in its popular arts series, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts. Directed, produced, and written by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, it tells the story of the legendary theatrical producer and director, champion of the arts, and major cultural figure in NYC’s recent history, who, in addition to making the plays of Shakespeare available on a yearly basis at no cost to audiences, also founded The Public Theater and produced such groundbreaking hits as Hair, A Chorus Line, and for colored girls who considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

Joe Papp with Charles Durning and others at the Delacorte Theater. Photo by George Joseph.

A native of Brooklyn, Papp (1921-91) was dedicated to expanding public access to the arts, in the belief that great art was for everyone, not just a privileged few. “We have public libraries,” he would argue, “Why not public theaters?” His goal was a “theater of inclusion” on-stage, backstage, and in the audience, recognizing the role artists could play in building a more democratic society, and convinced that women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and other marginalized communities, denied power elsewhere in society, could develop it on the stage.

Featuring rare footage from the 1950s to his death in 1991, along with up-close scenes from the performances themselves, the American Masters story of Papp’s personal history and professional accomplishments is told without narration. Instead, it is relayed in full by the artists who knew and worked with him, including such luminaries as David Hare, James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, Larry Kramer, Mandy Patinkin, Martin Sheen, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, and George C. Wolfe (former Artistic Director of The Public Theater), among others.

Now in its 36th season on PBS, American Masters illuminates the lives and creative journeys of artists who have left an indelible impression on our nation’s cultural landscape. Setting the standard for documentary film profiles, the series has earned 28 Emmy Awards, fourteen Peabodys, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, an Oscar, and many other honors.

American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts premieres nationwide on Friday, June 3, at 9 pm ET, on PBS (channel 13 in NYC; for other locations, check local listings). It is also available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including the PBS website and the PBS Video App, on iOS, Android, and Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast, and VIZIO, as part of the multiplatform campaign #PBSForTheArts.

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Deb Miller (PhD, Art History) is the Senior Correspondent and Editor for New York City, where she grew up seeing every show on Broadway. She is an active member of the Outer Critics Circle and served for more than a decade as a Voter, Nominator, and Judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre. Outside of her home base in NYC, she has written and lectured extensively on the arts and theater throughout the world (including her many years in Amsterdam, London, and Venice, and her extensive work and personal connections with Andy Warhol and his circle) and previously served as a lead writer for Stage Magazine, Phindie, and Central Voice.

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