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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. Eventualy, 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.
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 1984, the Festival Latino en Nueva York was launched through Papp's efforts and encouragement, and became an annual event. 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.
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