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Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954 in New York City. It was initially chartered as the Shakespeare Workshop, an actors' workshop presenting Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries free of charge in the basement of the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church and in the Heckscher Theater. The original aim was to cultivate and encourage interest in Shakespeare and classic drama, to present an annual Shakespeare festival, and to build an Elizabethan-style stage to present Shakespeare's works. During the fifties, Papp fought to obtain financial support from the City of New York in order to establish a subsidized, free Shakespearean theater. Eventually, Papp won a court battle with New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to keep his Shakespeare productions free to the public. In 1957, the New York Shakespeare Festival flatbed truck, which toured the city parks and playgrounds with performances of Shakespeare, broke down near Belvedere Lake in Central Park. On that site they constructed the Delacorte Theater, which opened in 1962. Papp relentlessly promoted the concept of free Shakespeare. He solicited support from foundations, corporations, political officials, and individual philanthropists.
During the sixties, Papp extended the reach of the New York Shakespeare Festival by bringing Shakespeare to the outer boroughs of New York City and the tri-state area. He created the Mobile Theater, which toured the public schools, religious institutions, and civic organizations. In 1965, the New York Shakespeare Festival purchased the landmark Astor Library building on Lafayette Street, and the city funded its conversion into the new Public Theater. Papp then added to the New York Shakespeare Festival's mission a new mandate: to produce new American plays. The Public Theater was inaugurated in 1967 with the production of the musical Hair. The Public Theater became the administrative home of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the laboratory for many original plays and musicals by David Rabe, Elizabeth Swados, Thomas Babe, Miguel Piñero, and many others. It was also home to many actors who found recognition through their association with the Festival, such as Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, and Meryl Streep.
During the seventies, the New York Shakespeare Festival's production schedule became increasingly prolific, moving many productions to Broadway, most notably Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Chorus Line, That Championship Season, and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (When the Rainbow Is Enuf). The New York Shakespeare Festival earned an international reputation for theatrical innovation and received numerous awards. Papp expanded the Festival into the areas of dance, music and poetry, producing new plays by young playwrights that reflected contemporary issues.
In 1974, the Festival was invited to become a constituent of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. During the next four years, the New York Shakespeare Festival produced In the Boom Boom Room, Short Eyes, and The Threepenny Opera, among others, and achieved both notoriety and acclaim for its innovative staging of classics and production of new, often controversial plays. In 1976, the Festival Latino en Nueva York was launched through Papp's efforts and encouragement, and became an annual event. Papp was ever seeking new audiences for the theater, which he believed to be a powerful social force.
In the seventies, The New York Shakespeare Festival expanded into television production with David Rabe's Sticks and Bones and several Shakespeare plays, then into motion pictures with adaptations of The Pirates of Penzance (1983) and Plenty (1985). The New York Shakespeare Festival participated in a theater exchange program with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. In addition, the Belasco Project was created to expose high school students to Shakespeare on Broadway, while the PITS Program taught them how to write plays. Papp became ill in the late eighties, and played a less active role in Festival administration and productions. His last major theatrical work was his direction of Bill Gunn's Forbidden City, while his involvement in the controversy over NEA funding marked his final act of public advocacy. Joseph Papp died on October 31, 1991.
- 1953-1954Joseph Papp forms Shakespeare Workshop, chartered by Board of Regents of State of New York "to encourage and cultivate interest in poetic drama with emphasis on the works of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries and to establish an annual Shakespeare Festival. Shakespeare Workshop presents An Evening With Shakespeare and Marlowe at the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church Sunday School.
- 1956-1957First season of "Free Shakespeare in the Park" presented in cooperation with Dept. of Parks at the East River Amphitheater. Papp moves operations to Heckscher Theater. Shakespeare Workshop opens season at Belvedere Lake with a new, grant-funded truck stage, and tours the five boroughs of New York City with Romeo and Juliet.
- 1958-1959Second season of Free Shakespeare at Belvedere Lake. Papp called before HUAC. Papp battles with NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses over Free Shakespeare in the Park. Papp goes to court to protest charging admission to public. State Appellate court rules in favor of free Shakespeare. Moses requests Board of Estimate to appropriate funds to build a Shakespeare-style amphitheater in Central Park.
- 1960-1961New York Shakespeare Festival officially chartered. Board of Education funds "Shakespeare in the Schools" tour of Romeo and Juliet in city schools. Construction of Delacorte Theater begins; Festival temporarily relocates to Wollman Rink. Mayor's Committee for Free Shakespeare formed.
- 1962The new Delacorte Theater opens with Merchant of Venice, starring George C. Scott; CBS-TV telecasts opening night performance.
- 1964"Mobile Theater" program begins; five-trailer caravan tours the five boroughs.
- 1966-1967NYSF purchases the old Astor Library building for $575,000. The musical Hair inaugurates the newly created Public Theater, dedicated to presenting contemporary works.
- 1968Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum opens at the Public Theater.
- 1970No Place to be Somebody wins the Pulitzer Prize.
- 1971City of New York purchases Public Theater, leases it back for $1 a year. Galt MacDermot's musical Two Gentlemen of Verona opens at the Delacorte and then moves to Broadway.
- 1972Sticks and Bones moves to Broadway. That Championship Season opens at the Public Theater. Tony Awards go to Two Gentlemen of Verona and Sticks and Bones.
- 1973Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts invites NYSF to join its constituency; first season at LC opens with Boom Boom Room. NYSF contracts with CBS-TV to produce Much Ado About Nothing. Contract expires before Sticks and Bones airs. Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for That Championship Season.
- 1974Short Eyes opens at the Public Theater and moves to Lincoln Center. NYSF contracts with ABC-TV to produce The Wedding Band.
- 1975A Chorus Line opens at the Public Theater and moves to Broadway.
- 1976Festival Latino begins.
- 1978Bernard Gersten leaves NYSF. For Colored Girls opens. Runaways opens, moves to Broadway. Poets at the Public program begins.
- 1979Jazz at the Public program begins.
- 1980Save our Broadway campaign begins.
- 1981The Pirates of Penzance opens, moves to Broadway, and is adapted into film.
- 1982Save our Theaters campaign aims but fails to protect the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters from demolition.
- 1983NYSF begins theater exchange program with London's Royal Court Theater.
- 1984Papp tours Europe, visits Vaclav Havel, initiates theater exchange with Russia.
- 1985The Normal Heart opens.
- 1986Belasco/Shakespeare on Broadway Project begins. Playwriting in the Schools program also begins.
- 1987Shakespeare Marathon begins, an attempt to produce all of Shakespeare's plays.
- 1988NEA controversy and Joseph Papp's involvement in it deepens.
- 1989Joseph Papp dies in New York City.
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