It’s been a big week for the Public Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Over the weekend, Bill and Hillary Clinton attended a performance of “Tiny Beautiful Things” and today the intersection of Lafayette Street and Astor Place was renamed Joseph Papp Way, after the Public’s founder.
Speaking near the new street sign this morning, the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis said that Papp, along with Jane Jacobs, created our idea of what a city should be. “They held down the notion that the beauty of a city was its cacophonous collection of strangers of different ethnicities, of different classes, of different religions and creeds and ages.” Like Jacobs, Papp famously battled Robert Moses, taking him to court in a successful effort to keep the New York Shakespeare Festival free of charge.
Eustis noted that after Papp founded what’s now known as Shakespeare in the Park in 1954, he realized the free theater festival was “necessary but not sufficient.” In addition to bringing Shakespeare to the masses, Eustis said, Papp realized that “the other thing you had to do was take the voice of the people and put that up on stage. You had to actually make a new canon that reflected the America and the New York that we are.”
Great News!! Lafayette St is now officially co-named Joseph Papp Way, honoring the mighty Joseph Papp, founder of the @PublicTheaterNY The new sign was unveiled this morning by Joe Papp's wife, Gail. When you pass by, look up & thank Joe Papp for the massive legacy he left NYC! pic.twitter.com/7SzOJUpnqF
— Astor Place NYC (@AstorPlaceNYC) December 1, 2017
Thus, in the mid-’60s, Papp bought the former Astor Library for $650,000 from the newly formed Landmarks Commission and started a renovation that Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “the miracle on Lafayette Street.” Starting with the Public’s opening production of Hair in 1967, Papp staged several shows that went on to find success on Broadway, including The Pirates of Penzance and A Chorus Line. He also championed the early work of playwrights such as David Rabe, Miguel Pinero, Wallace Shawn, and David Mamet, and actors like James Earl Jones and Meryl Streep.
Eustis commended Papp’s “unswerving, ferocious determination” and said that it “changed this city, obviously created the Public, and changed what we understand about the American theater forever.”
Papp was born Joseph Papirofsky in Williamsburg, to Russian Jewish immigrants. His wife, Gail Papp, today called him a “native-born son of New York City” who “loved its people and the city passionately, and devoted his entire life to creating cultural opportunities for its citizens.” She said the street renaming was a “fitting and worthy example” of her late husband’s great passion: “public service in the name of the arts.”
In a Mayoral Proclamation declaring today Joseph Papp Day, Bill de Blasio commended the “visionary theater producer” for his “passion for innovation and inclusivity.”
Papp, who died in 1991, is also being honored on stage at the Public in the form of Richard Nelson’s Illyria, which dramatizes the scrappy, early days of what was then known as the New York Shakespeare Festival, as it moved from the East River Park amphitheater, on the Lower East Side, to Central Park in 1958. The production, praised by Vulture, runs through Dec. 10.