Joseph Papp (Jun 22, 1921 – Oct 31, 1991) would have been 96 today had he lived to that ripe old age. The anniversary of his death was yesterday, and were it not for a review of a play about him authored by playwright, Richard Nelson that fact would have gone unnoticed by me. But I happened on a review of Nelson’s play by the NY Times’ Ben Brantley, and that brought back a flood of memories.
Joe gave me one of many breaks that good fortune brought my way back in the 1970’s, when my wife, Kimberly and I were doing the starving, struggling young artists thing back in those days – she as a fledgling soprano and I as an aspiring stage director.
Pickings were few and slim in those days. I had done two seasons as a member of the staging staff at the NY City Opera and had decided to go out into the world as a free-lance director. Gigs were coming our way but the pay was terrible and working conditions were appalling.
We survived by taking any job that came in our directions as long as it was honest work. We sang the High Holidays at Union Temple in Brooklyn, and Kimberly became the go to soprano when it came to operatic rarities. I did translations from and into several Romance languages, while Kimberly put together a little traveling troupe: Storybook Opera that took her and several other young singers at their start of their careers to schools in all five boroughs.
One day, I decided to go to the Public Theatre – Joe Papp’s artistic home – and introduce myself to The Man himself. I was ushered into Papp’s office. He was seated behind a huge desk with posters of many of his theatrical triumphs behind him. This being early 1974 some of the big successes were still to come, but Shakespeare in the Park already was an institution, and the Public’s several spaces were busy at all times.
Joe was not fond of amenities or small talk, and I being Hispanic and prone to circumlocution feared that we would not hit it off. But we did. Joe was fond of Cuba and Cuban cigars, so we talked about Cuba. Joe finally asked what he could do for me. I replied (the audacity!) that I wanted to work for him, whether it was going out for coffee or sweeping the stage or whatever. He laughed and got up and asked me to follow him into the office of Gail Merrifield, his second wife.
That afternoon I walked out of the Public carrying a Shakespeare in the Park canvas bag full of play scripts. My assignment was to read each one, from start to finish, write a one page report and return them in person to Gail’s office, to then pick up a new pile for the following week. At $10 a script, I could bring home a nice check week after week during those lean times when I was not involved in directing a production.
As the months passed I was promoted: my next job was to attend performances of plays that interested Joe as possible vehicles for his theatre. Over a space of two years I must have seen dozens of plays. Some were stage disasters, some, like Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways got good reports from me, which in turn motivated Gail to see the play I had recommended and that, in turn, led to a production.
I worked for the Papp’s on and off for a couple of years until in 1979 Kimberly and I embarked on a new chapter of our lives. Many years living out of suitcases had elapsed during which we did not live year round in NYC. We finally gave up our apartment in Brooklyn and moved to Miami, FL. There we eventually co-founded a theatre which I helmed as its artistic director for the next two decades.
During those first months after our arrival I worked as assistant director of the Education and Outreach Department of the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse. One day a call came into the Playhouse. There was no telephone operator then but a loudspeaker system where your name and that of your caller would be announced within earshot of everyone who worked there. A voice on the intercom announced: “RAFAEL PICK UP CALL FROM JOE PAPP.” I thought it was a prank, but no, it was Joe at the other end of the line, who began the conversation not as if ten years had elapsed since we had spoken to each other but as if we had just been talking earlier that morning.
He was very disappointed over the outcome of negotiations about a projected festival of Hispanic theatre which he wanted to bring to Miami after a successful New York run the year before. He asked me what I thought of Miami as a possible venue for that project. I was candid in my response – Joe would detect double talk quickly anyway. In the course of our conversation – peppered with expletives from Joe’s sailor mouth – he asked why the f— did I not come back to NYC and work for him and get out of “Death Valley South” (his nickname for Miami.) I must have paused for quite a while before I replied.
Kimberly and I had been saving for nearly nine years to see our dream of running our own theatre become reality. My story must have resounded with Joe. He too had started his own theatre with little more than a hope and a prayer, and he saw in me a young reflection of his own youthful self from many years earlier.
We said goodbye and never spoke again. The years rolled by and one day in 1991 I read Joe’s obituary in the New York Times. Soon it will be half a century since that day in 1974, when I went into Joe Papp’s office and asked to work for him. I don’t know if Joe ever realized what a profound impact he and his theatrical vision made on me. But I cherish to this day my experiences working for Joe during two marvelous years back in the 1970’s.
Rafael de Acha