PBS AMERICAN MASTERS will celebrate Public Theater’s Joe Papp with a documentary


Ahead of the 60th anniversary season of Free Shakespeare in The Park at New York’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts tells the story of this indomitable champion of the street arts. As founder of The Public Theatre, Free Shakespeare in the Park and producer of groundbreaking plays like Hair, A Chorus Line and For Colored Girls…, Papp believed that great art was for everyone, not just privileged few. An agent of cultural change for over fifty years, Papp’s scenes served as a mirror to society with works that reflected the reality of people’s lives. Directed and produced by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts will premiere nationally Friday, June 3 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), http://pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app as part of #PBSForTheArts.

More than any other cultural figure in recent history, Papp has worked to expand public access to the arts. “We have public libraries”, he said, “Why not public theatres?” Papp recognized the role artists could play in building a more democratic and inclusive society. At a time when theater was largely the domain of white men, he believed that women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and other marginalized, disempowered communities elsewhere in society could develop it on stage. His goal was a “theater of inclusion” on stage, backstage and in the audience.

Featuring rare footage from the 1950s to Papp’s death in 1991 and close-up scenes from the performances themselves, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts tells his story without narration. His great achievements and his own often tumultuous personal story are told by the artists he helped create – and in some cases tried to destroy – including James Earl Jones (the Star Wars trilogy, The Lion King) , Kevin Kline (Dave , A Fish Called Wanda), Larry Kramer (playwright, The Normal Heart, The Destiny of Me), Mandy Patinkin (Sunday in the Park with George, Homeland), Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, West Wing), Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, Mamma Mia), Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction) and George C. Wolfe (director Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, former artistic director of The Public Theatre), among others .

Using his life and work as a lens, American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts, aims to keep the legacy of this larger-than-life visionary alive and spark a national conversation about what it means to be American and the role of art in a democracy for a new generation.

#PBSForTheArts is a cross-platform campaign that celebrates the arts in America. For more than 50 years, PBS has been the arts media destination, bringing dance, theater, opera, visual arts and concerts to Americans in every corner of the country.

Now in its 36th season on PBS, AMERICAN MASTERS illuminates the lives and creative journeys of our nation’s most enduring artistic giants – those who have left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape – through gripping, unvarnished stories. Setting the standard for documentary film profiles, the series has garnered critical acclaim: 28 Emmy Awards – including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special – two News & Documentary Emmys, 14 Peabodys, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, an Oscar and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of over 250 past and present masters, the American Masters website offers full episodes, film clips, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters: Creative Spark podcast, educational resources, digital original series and more. The series is a production of the WNET group.

American Masters is available for streaming concurrently on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. Members of the PBS station can watch many series, documentaries and specials through PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

Websites: http://pbs.org/americanmasters, http://facebook.com/americanmasters, @PBSAmerMasters, http://youtube.com/AmericanMastersPBS, http://instagram.com/pbsamericanmasters #AmericanMastersPBS

Pictured: Joe Papp with Charles Durning and others at the Delacorte Theatre.

Photo credits: George Joseph


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