It took me a five years to get around to reading Kenneth Turan’s oral history of the New York Shakespeare Festival — “Free for All” — but that may be apropos for a book that took almost 30 years to see the light of day.
Turan and NYSF founder Joe Papp made a deal in the 1980s to chart the history of the institution that began in the late 1950s in an amphitheatre next to East River but quickly expanded to a non-profit theatrical empire that included the summer performances at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, the year-round productions at the multi-stage Public Theater on the lower East Side, and ventures on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, and network television.
Papp was a visionary who believed in free Shakspeare, politically charged contemporary theater, and the nurturing of young writing, directing and acting talent.
Turan set out to do an oral history of Papp and his work and he talked to everyone from Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott — whose careers were launched in early Papp productions — to much later arrivals like Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.
The writer put together mini-histories of Papp’s landmark productions of “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Pirates of Penzance” (below), “Streamers,” “True West” and many more.
Unfortunately for Turan, Papp hated the book — no surprise since it documents the way he clashed with so many people like playwrights David Rabe and Sam Shepard, as well as his sad falling-out with right-hand man Bernard Gersten after decades of loyal service.
“Needless to say, this was devastating,” Turan writes in the introduction of Papp refusing to sign off on the book. “Not only because of the work put into the project but also because of how important I felt it was to tell this story and tell it in this form.”
“The blow was so severe that I had difficulty talking about what transpired for weeks, months, even years after it happened. Though I was of course angry, I found that my anger was never directed at Joe. He was simply being the person I had discovered him to be during my research and interviews, and in my heart I could not fault him for that.”
Papp died in 1991. Turan wrote to his widow and partner at the Public Theater, Gail Merrifield Papp, and asked if there might be some way of moving forward. These negotiations and the subsequent revisions of the manuscript took several years — Turan had to do the work around his very busy job as film critic for The Los Angeles Times — but the book finally appeared in 2009.
“Free for All” tells one of the great stories in modern American theater in the voices of some of its most important figures. Part of the enormous pleasure of reading the book is coming into contact once again with the vibrant personalities of many people who have died over the past 30 years, including Dewhurst and Scott.
Turan talked to other now-deceased legendary figures who worked with a very young Joe Papp right after World War II at a Group Theater spin-off in Los Angeles called the Actors Lab. So we get to hear from Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand and Anthony Quinn and many others from Papp’s early life in the theater.
“Free for All” does have lots of juicy material that no doubt caused some of Papp’s displeasure. There’s a terrific account of the New York debut of “True West” in which co-stars Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle battled with Sam Shepard’s hand-picked director Robert Woodruff, causing Woodruff and Shepard to withdraw from the production. The rise and fall of Papp’s relationship with David Rabe is also charted in fascinating detail. But Turan tells these stories in a tactful and balanced manner through his choice of quotes.
Connecticut readers will find the chapter on the development of Rabe’s “Streamers” especially interesting. Mike Nichols demanded that the play be developed outside New York City rather than at the Public Theater so the world premiere was at Long Wharf Theatre. Papp then agreed to present the play in New York but tried to remove Long Wharf’s credit from the advertising. The account of the ostentatious walk-outs on the play in New Haven are very amusing.
It is awful to imagine this terrific piece of theater history never finding its way into print.