Founding Visions: Joseph Papp & the Hungry Public

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This is the final article of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theater history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA) respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.

In the essay below, Emmalie Handley explores Joseph Papp’s fervent belief in the necessity of a free theatre. Papp frequently referred to theatre as being a public good in the same way that a public library was — a place where people were able to access culture no matter what their financial situation. This principle was sacrosanct for Papp, who resisted even minimal prices for tickets at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Emmalie connects Papp’s central principle to the development of a future audience. As always, I hope you will share Emmalie’s work and provide her with feedback regarding her ideas; that’s the way we learn! — Scott Walters

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I feel lucky to have grown up in a community and family which celebrated my interest in theatre. It was a shock to me moving from Kansas City, MO, where there was a lot of support for arts, to Asheville, NC, where there was far less arts-based education, and seeing how little people cared about the arts. My high school theatre consisted of old flats that had been reused and repaired poorly and 20 year old paint. We couldn’t afford to get fabric for new costumes, but just outside was a multi-million dollar stadium for our losing football team who also received brand new uniforms every year.

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For a long time I thought this was just their choice of the administration and population to ignore anything that had to do with arts and their refusal to support it as an educational tool. While some of this might be true, my thoughts since then have changed. I have discovered, to my surprise, that people aren’t even exposed to theatre at young ages. By contrast, sports are easily accessible: we grow up with peewee football and Tball, team sports such as soccer start in preKindergarten.

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Joseph Papp in Central Park

But where are the shows for children? Where are the mandatory theatre classes for elementary school aged children? Theatre seems to be withheld from people at younger ages because their families can’t afford it. Reading about Joseph Papps constant, passionate struggle to bring free Shakespeare to all was enlightening to me. I work for a free Shakespeare company in Asheville, the Montford Park Players, and I see a diverse audience every night I perform. I am often pleased by how vastly different the people are who come together to see play that people have sometimes deemed “outdated” and “hard to understand.”

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Many people have argued that theatre shouldn’t be free because artists need to be paid for their work. While this is undoubtedly true, and of course Papp paid his artists through his fight for funding to supplement ticket sales, our first commitment should be to share with an audience a special moment in time that we all can appreciate. I have seen so many different people, many younger than 14, gain an appreciation for theatre sitting in our amphitheatre. These kids are the reason we need to offer free theatre — they are the future of our art form. I walk out after a show and see a child saying the lines I just recited not 20 minutes ago as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it is clear they understand exactly what it is the character is trying to say — Shakespeare has come alive yet again.

Why should that child have to grow up not seeing the wonders of a world in the past just because their family doesn’t have the extra money? When did it become the norm to say that attending the theatre is a luxury that only those well off can participate in? If an audience is able to access free theatre, they will be able to open their minds to a new world. We need to provide that world for them. We should be able to hand them the tools to gain new knowledge through these shows. They should be excited to have that new memory that is all theirs. They get to cherish that memory and file it away in their mind, only to bring it out later and share with others.

Joseph Papp 2Joseph Papp, through his work with the New York Shakespeare Festival, strove for a theatre for all. He wanted people to have access to an art form that is crucial to our existence as humans. He saw that, through Shakespeare’s plays, people were brought together to experience something as a whole and learn something together. He saw no reason for people of lower economic standing to have to give up this amazing and crucial experience. We should find a way to make theatre more accessible because then there might be understanding that theatre, and the arts in general, are meaningful for all people, that they bring us together and help us become more empathetic as a whole. I believe that to achieve a community where theatre is widely accepted as a needed art form we must encourage a new generation to support and attend theatre.

“All the World’s a Stage” is such a true statement. So why are we forced to close the stage off to those who want to play with us?


biopicEmmalie Handley is a sophomore at UNC-Asheville majoring in Theatre and minoring in Literature. Her focus is on refining acting and expanding her knowledge in scenic painting.