Joe Papp and His Contribution to Public Theater

Authored by Crystal Lopez

Photograph of actors Priscilla Smith and Jamil Zakkai in full costume and masks during the production of Agamemnon, from the William Harris Papers at Marymount Manhattan College

Photograph of Priscilla Smith and Jamil Zakkai during the production of Agamemnon, from the William Harris Papers at Marymount Manhattan College

William Balber (Billy) Harris was a drama and dance critic who wrote articles, criticism and reviews for many publications including Art Forum, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. Throughout the course of his career he amassed an impressive collection of papers that his brother John wanted to keep available to the public after Harris’ death. They were donated to Marymount Manhattan College, who are best known for their performing arts program (Brown, 2001). Within Marymount’s collection is this photograph from the play Agamemnon. The play originally debuted in May 1977 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival (Playbill, n.d.).

The New York Shakespeare Festival was Joseph Papirofsky’s (better known as Joe Papp) lifelong mission. He was a producer and director who founded the festival in 1954 because he truly believed that the Bard’s plays were intended for the people and wanted to make the works accessible to the public (Kornstein, 2005).

Joe Papp wanted to create a theater that would be different from Broadway, off-Broadway and the American Shakespeare Festival. He modeled it after institutions such as the New York Public Library and New York City’s Goldman Band. He often reminisced about the band concerts he had attended as a child in Prospect Park: no assigned seats, ticket-takers or admission fee–just green lawns and music. He wanted to reach audiences who might’ve never experienced a play before; unable to pay. He wanted his theater to be free (Epstein, 1996). Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in a Presbyterian Church basement, taking the first step into his dream of bringing Shakespeare to the masses (Gallo, 1988). At first Papp found that the people from the neighborhood did not come into the church. He thought that they might not be so comfortable with the idea of dressing up and sitting in an auditorium with strangers. An idea sparked that perhaps they’d prefer to watch a play outside. He then remembered the breeze, trees and lake of Prospect Park on the evenings he went to hear the Goldman Band. In the summer of 1956 the Shakespeare Workshop presented its first production, Julius Caesar, in the East River Amphitheater (Epstein, 1996).

Papp was revolutionary in the way he wanted to make Shakespeare accessible. He was known for his multiracial casting, which aided in the development of multiracial audiences (Epstein, 1996). He also presented an “American” kind of Shakespeare in which actors performed without a traditional English accent. This was so students could feel more connected to the content (Epstein, 1996).

The New York Shakespeare Festival has become the most significant not-for-profit theater group in the country and in his years with the Shakespeare Festival and the parallel Public Theater, Joseph Papp has made theater in America both accessible and essential (Turan & Papp, 2010). He believed in Shakespeare for a mass urban audience. His influence significantly helped keep Shakespeare alive (Kornstein, 2005, p. xi).


Brown, M. E., “The William Harris Papers,” Marymount Manhattan College, 2001.

Epstein, H., Joe Papp: An American Life, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Gallo, D. R., Joseph Papp: The Man Who Brings Shakespeare to Life,” The English Journal, Vol. 77, No. 7, 1988, 14-19. Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

Kornstein, D.,  Kill all the lawyers?: Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Playbill, “Agamemnon,” Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

Turan, K., & Papp, J., Free For All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, New York: Anchor Books, 2010.