WHEN I WORKED FOR JOE

Joseph Papp (Jun 22, 1921 – Oct 31, 1991) would have been 99 today, had he lived to that ripe old age. The anniversary of his death came and went last year and were it not for a documentary about him that my wife, Kimberly had found on PBS and that she surprised me with, I would not have had Joe in my mind. The TV biopic brought back a flood of memories.

Joe gave me one of the breaks that good fortune brought my way back in the 1970’s, when Kimberly and I were among many starving, struggling young hopefuls living in NYC – she as a fledgling soprano and I as an aspiring stage director.

Gigs were few in those days. I had done two seasons as a member of the staging staff at the NY City Opera and had decided to go out into the world as a free-lance director. A few jobs were coming my way, but the pay was terrible and working conditions were appalling.

We survived by taking literally anything that came our way as long as it was honest work. We sang the High Holidays at Union Temple in Brooklyn, and Kimberly became the go-to soprano when it came to operatic rarities. I did translations from and into several Romance languages, while Kimberly put together a little traveling troupe: Storybook Opera that took her and several other young singers – including our friend, mezzo-soprano Claudia Catania, then at the start of her career – to schools in all five boroughs.

One day, I decided to go to the Public Theatre – Joe Papp’s artistic home – and introduce myself to The Man himself. I was ushered into Papp’s office. He was seated behind a huge desk with posters of many of his theatrical triumphs behind him. This being early 1974 some of the big successes were still to come, but Shakespeare in the Park already was an institution, and the Public’s several spaces were always busy.

Joe was not fond of amenities or small talk, and I being Hispanic and occasionally prone to circumlocution feared that we would not hit it off. But we did. Joe was fond of Cuba and Cuban cigars, so we talked about Cuba. Joe finally asked what he could do for me. I replied (the audacity!) that I wanted to work for him, whether it was going out for coffee or sweeping the stage or whatever. He laughed and got up and asked me to follow him into the office of Gail Merrifield, his second wife.

That afternoon I walked out of the Public carrying a Shakespeare in the Park canvas bag full of play scripts. My assignment was to read each one, from start to finish, write a one-page report and return them in person to Gail’s office, to then pick up a new pile for the following week. At $10 a script, I could bring home a nice check week after week during those lean times when I was not involved in directing a production.

As the months passed, I was promoted: my next job was to attend performances of plays that interested Joe as possible vehicles for his theatre. Over a space of two years, I must have seen dozens of plays. Some were stage disasters, some, like Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways got good reports from me, which in turn motivated Gail to see the play I had recommended and that, in turn, led to a production.

I worked for the Papp’s on and off for a couple of years until in 1979 Kimberly and I embarked on a new chapter of our lives. Many years living out of suitcases elapsed during which we did not live year-round in NYC. We finally gave up our apartment in Brooklyn and moved to Miami, FL. There we eventually co-founded a theatre which I helmed as its artistic director for the next two decades.

During those first months after our arrival, I worked as assistant director of the Education and Outreach Department of the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse. One day a call came into the Playhouse. There was no telephone operator then but a loudspeaker system where your name and that of your caller would be announced within earshot of everyone who worked there. A voice on the intercom announced: “RAFAEL PICK UP CALL FROM JOE PAPP.” I thought it was a prank, but no, it was Joe at the other end of the line, who began the conversation not as if ten years had elapsed since we had spoken to each other but as if we had just been talking earlier that morning.

He was very disappointed over the outcome of negotiations about a projected festival of Hispanic theatre which he wanted to bring to Miami after a successful New York run the year before. He asked me what I thought of Miami as a possible venue for that project. I was candid in my response – Joe would detect double-talk anyway.

During our conversation – peppered with expletives from Joe’s sailor mouth – he asked why I did not come back to NYC and work for him and get out of “Death Valley South” (his nickname for Miami.) Kimberly and I had been saving for nearly nine years to see our dream of running our own theatre become reality. I must have paused for quite a while before I replied with my words of thanks and the reasons why I could not accept his invitation.

My story must have resounded with Joe. He too had started his own theatre with little more than a hope and a prayer, and he saw in me a young reflection of his own youthful self from many years earlier. We said goodbye and never spoke again. The years rolled by and one day in 1991 I read Joe’s obituary in the New York Times.

After watching that PBS documentary last night, I thought about that conversation with Joe a long-time ago. I wondered what would have happened if I had accepted Joe’s offer to come and work for him. I was reminded of what an oversized personality Joe had and of how he neither cultivated a successor nor seemed to tolerate any one playwright, director, actor, or administrator rising in prominence past a certain point within the structure of his theatre. In the documentary many artists sing Joe’s praises while adding comments on the flaws in his character that led to breakups with his second in command, Bernard Gestern, with the creator of Chorus Line, choreographer-director Michael Bennett, and with more than one playwright.

After his death there was more than one attempt to fill Joe’s shoes, starting with the troubled and short-lived administration of JoAnne Akalaitis. Eventually George C. Wolfe successfully led the organization, followed today by Oskar Eustis.

Soon it will be half a century since that day in 1974, when I went into Joe Papp’s office and asked to work for him. I don’t know if Joe ever realized what a profound impact, he and his theatrical vision made on me. But I cherish to this day my experiences working for Joe during two marvelous years back in the 1970’s.

Rafael de Acha (c) 2023

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