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The Public Theater at 50

It started with one man's aspiration and grew into a New York institution. Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival started in a church basement on the Lower East Side with one basic concept: that classical plays should be free to all, like books in a library.

The Public Theater at 50
The Festival opened in a brand new theater in Central Park in 1957 (the Delacorte Theater), bringing Papp's new way of staging the works of the Bard to a larger audience. In addition to not charging admission, the Festival presented the theater in a way that reflected the whole community. From the audience in the seats and the actors onstage to the show locations that moved from borough to borough, this theater was as diverse as New York City. In the 1950's Shakespeare had been performed by actors with British accents, but this didn't ring true for Papp, who felt that American speech was just as valid a way of delivering Shakespeare.

In 1962, after several successful summers in Central Park, Papp wanted a year-round theater. For a location, Papp lucked out in finding the former building of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on Lafayette Street near Manhattan's Cooper Square. The building had been scheduled for demolition, but had been given a temporary reprieve by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Once acquired, Papp gave it the name The Public Theater

The Public Theater at 50
For fifty years, The Public Theater has been staging cutting edge works, while bringing forty-nine shows to Broadway including STICKS AND BONES, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, A CHORUS LINE, HAIR, THE TEMPEST and many more. As an organization, The Public Theater has won Tonys, Obies, Drama Desk Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, but its real legacy lies with its plays. More than anything else, The Public, is a writer's theater -- a place that nurtures and supports playwrights and their new work.


Bernard Gersten was The Public's associate producer for seventeen years. Gersten went on to produce plays at Lincoln Center Theater.

Gail Merrifield Papp worked at the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater, where Merrifield was the head of the play development department. She and Papp were married in 1976.

Frank Rich is a columnist for THE NEW YORK TIMES and was the paper's chief theater critic from 1980 to 1994.

Sam Waterston is most recently known as Jack McCoy in LAW AND ORDER, but theater goers know him for his work as a classical actor. His performances in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, AS YOU LIKE IT, HAMLET and A DOLLS HOUSE garnered Waterston not only awards, but the recognition of being one of the country's finest actors.

Roscoe Lee Browne started his acting career on the stage at the New York Shakespeare Festival in JULIUS CAESAR in 1956. Since then he has worked on Broadway, in movies, and television.

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright. She wrote the acclaimed FIRES IN THE MIRROR, which premiered at the Public and was later adapted for Public Television's "American Playhouse."

The Public Theater at 50
George C. Wolfe is a playwright and director who served as a producer at the Public for eleven years. Wolfe wrote many hit plays including; JELLY'S LAST JAM, and THE COLORED MUSEUM. He is also an accomplished director working on stage and screen. His directing credits include, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY,THE WILD PARTY, ANGELS IN AMERICA, and BRING IN 'DA NOISE, BRING IN 'DA FUNK.

Oskar Eustis is currently the Public's Artistic Director. For the past ten years he has been the Artistic Director of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, and was Chair of the Brown University/Trinity Consortium.

Tony Kushner, one of the most prominent contemporary playwrights in America, is known for the political themes of his works. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his landmark ANGELS IN AMERICA -- PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, which explores themes of moral responsibility during the Reagan era and the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. His musical, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, had its world premiere at the Public before transferring to Broadway. Kushner is a big believer in the power of theatre to educate and enlighten.

John Guare best known works include HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES (which won both an Obie and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the Best American Play of 1970-71 and received four Tony Awards FOUR BABOONS ADORING THE SUN (which was produced at the Lincoln Center Theater in 1992 and was nominated for four Tony Awards), and SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. His hit play TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA that he wrote with Mel Shpiro in 1971 was revived this summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Donna McKechnie is a singer and dancer best know for her role as "Cassie" in the original production of A CHORUS LINE.

Michael John LaChiusa is one of the most prolific writers for the musical theater today. In 1995 he won an Obie Award for HELLO AGAIN and FIRST LADY SUITE and in 1989 he was the first recipient of the Stephen Sondheim Award. His works for the Public include THE WILD PARTY, which transferred to Broadway, and SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE, which kicks off the Public's new season.

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Part 1: From Joseph Papp's vision of a free public theater in New York to the bright lights of Broadway and beyond.View this story
View this storyPart 2: The Public matures into one of New York's great cultural institutions and changes the direction of theater in America.
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Funding for this program was provided by:

The LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust

Thirteen WNET New York