Born Yussel Papirofsky in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he discovered Shakespeare in public school and first produced a show on an aircraft carrier during World War II. After a stint at the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood, he moved to New York, where he worked as a CBS stage manager during the golden age of television. He fought Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (as well as Mayors Wagner, Lindsay, Beame and Koch) winning first the right to stage free Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park, then municipal funding to keep it going. He built the Delacorte Theater and later rebuilt the former Astor Library on Lafayette Street, transforming it into the Public Theater.
In addition to helping create an "American" style of Shakespeare, Papp pioneered colorblind casting and theater as a not-for-profit institution. He showcased playwrights David Rabe, Elizabeth Swados, Ntozake Shange, David Hare, Wallace Shawn, John Guare, and Vaclav Havel; directors Michael Bennett, Wilford Leach and James Lapine; actors Al Pacino, Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sam Waterston, and Denzel Washington; and produced Hair, Sticks and Bones, for colored girls, The Normal Heart, and A Chorus Line, the longest running musical in Broadway history.
"This first biography of the late Joseph Papp will be a hard act to follow." — Booklist
"The final portrait that emerges might have been jointly painted by Goya, Whistler and Francis Bacon." — Benedict Nightingale, front-page New York Times Sunday Book Review
Playwright Tony Kushner called Papp "one of the very few heroes this tawdry, timid business has produced" and the book, a "nourishing and juicy biography."
"Helen Epstein recounts [Papp's] career in [this] definitive, meticulously researched and highly readable biography. [...] It is a tribute to Epstein’s narrative skill that the detailed account of Papp’s decline and eventual defeat by cancer [...] reads as both riveting and horrifying." — Ellen Schiff, All About Jewish Theatre
Oklahoma-born Paul Davis created 51 iconic posters for Joseph Papp, starting in 1975 with the New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Hamlet" starring Sam Waterston. "It was inspiring to work with Joe," says Davis. "We would discuss what he wanted to achieve in a production, and he trusted me to find a way to express it. And he respected the poster as its own dramatic form." The artist’s work has been exhibited in the U.S., Europe and Japan. He is a recipient of a special Drama Desk award created for his theater art. Davis was elected to the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, and is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.
About the author
Born in Prague in 1947, Helen Epstein grew up in New York City, where she graduated from Hunter College High School in 1965. She studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and became a journalist after the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968 when her personal account was published in the Jerusalem Post. She became a university correspondent for that newspaper while still an undergraduate. Subsequently, she studied at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and began freelancing for diverse publications including the New York Times.
Her profiles of legendary musicians such as Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma are collected in Music Talks that, like Children of the Holocaust and Where She Came From, has been translated into several other languages. She herself is the translator of Heda Kovály's Under A Cruel Star and Vlasta Schönová's Acting in Terezín. Her biographies of Joseph Papp and Tina Packer grew out of her journalistic work. She has an active speaking career and has lectured at a wide variety of venues in Europe, and North and South America. She blogs for The Arts Fuse, a New England cultural web site.