Stories

From Gail Merrifield Papp’s forthcoming memoir

My first lunch with Joe
Persuading Joe to Read The Normal Heart
The Belasco Project
On a dark and deserted road

Persuading Joe to Read The Normal Heart

(excerpted from the chapter “The Normal Heart”)

Larry Kramer at cottage
Larry Kramer at the Papps’ cottage.
Photo: Gail Papp
When I first began to read scripts for Joe I discovered that we had similar tastes in plays. I really can’t account for it. We were so dissimilar in so many ways. There was a thirteen-year age difference, a difference in backgrounds, and our personalities were polar opposites. Nevertheless, we were both attracted by powerful language and subjects inspired by what Joe called “the terror and pity” of human existence. I shared his conviction that art was “fighting energy and an affirmation of the struggle to live.”
But I knew that persuading him to read Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart wouldn’t be an easy task because, despite my privileged access to Joe, I had learned that there was never a good time to ask him to read a play. Regardless of the circumstances, it spoiled his mood and interrupted something that had a greater claim on his attention. In addition, Joe was habitually doubtful that recommendations ever proved to be worth their salt, and I was in no way exempt from that standard, so there were many reasons for me to severely test my judgment before recommending a script to him.
Although Joe was often passionate about the plays he produced, at the beginning of the process he was seldom enthusiastic about producing a play, as if the last thing on earth he wanted to do was to take on the responsibility of bringing yet another play to fruition in one of his theaters.
Since The Normal Heart was too long to read in one sitting at the office, I brought it home. Taking a deep breath, I said to Joe, “Here’s a play that deals with a really important issue. It needs a lot of work, but it’s full of passion and I think you should read it.”
“What’s it about?” Joe asked me.
“AIDS.”
“Gail, you know I don’t like plays about illness,” Joe said. “I’ve never done them, and I never will do them.”
“I know,” I said, “but this one is different.”
The Normal Heart
The Normal Heart logo designed by Paul Davis
I left the script on our L-shaped dining-working table, but a week passed before Joe picked it up. The first twenty pages were a disaster.
“Gail, I can’t go on with this,” he said, pushing the script away as if he’d just tasted spoiled milk. “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but if you read a little further, you’ll see that it has something.”
Putting myself on the artistic line with Joe was a nerve-wracking business. I wasn’t shielded from his stern verdict about the worthiness of a play any more than anyone else was. I felt confident about The Normal Heart, however, not because it was timely or political, but because it had made me cry, something that rarely happened when I read a play.
Reluctantly, Joe picked up the imperfect opus again, protesting every time he turned a page, alternately on strike or grumpy about going on with it, but by the time he got to the end he was in tears, just as moved as I had been.

Excerpted from a chapter in Gail Papp’s forthcoming memoir

(excerpted from the chapter “The Normal Heart”)

Larry Kramer at cottage
Larry Kramer at the Papps’ cottage.
Photo: Gail Papp
When I first began to read scripts for Joe I discovered that we had similar tastes in plays. I really can’t account for it. We were so dissimilar in so many ways. There was a thirteen-year age difference, a difference in backgrounds, and our personalities were polar opposites. Nevertheless, we were both attracted by powerful language and subjects inspired by what Joe called “the terror and pity” of human existence. I shared his conviction that art was “fighting energy and an affirmation of the struggle to live.”

But I knew that persuading him to read Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart wouldn’t be an easy task because, despite my privileged access to Joe, I had learned that there was never a good time to ask him to read a play. Regardless of the circumstances, it spoiled his mood and interrupted something that had a greater claim on his attention. In addition, Joe was habitually doubtful that recommendations ever proved to be worth their salt, and I was in no way exempt from that standard, so there were many reasons for me to severely test my judgment before recommending a script to him.

Although Joe was often passionate about the plays he produced, at the beginning of the process he was seldom enthusiastic about producing a play, as if the last thing on earth he wanted to do was to take on the responsibility of bringing yet another play to fruition in one of his theaters.

Since The Normal Heart was too long to read in one sitting at the office, I brought it home. Taking a deep breath, I said to Joe, “Here’s a play that deals with a really important issue. It needs a lot of work, but it’s full of passion and I think you should read it.”

“What’s it about?” Joe asked me.
“AIDS.”
“Gail, you know I don’t like plays about illness,” Joe said. “I’ve never done them, and I never will do them.”
“I know,” I said, “but this one is different.”
The Normal Heart
The Normal Heart logo designed by Paul Davis
I left the script on our L-shaped dining-working table, but a week passed before Joe picked it up. The first twenty pages were a disaster.
“Gail, I can’t go on with this,” he said, pushing the script away as if he’d just tasted spoiled milk. “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but if you read a little further, you’ll see that it has something.”

Putting myself on the artistic line with Joe was a nerve-wracking business. I wasn’t shielded from his stern verdict about the worthiness of a play any more than anyone else was. I felt confident about The Normal Heart, however, not because it was timely or political, but because it had made me cry, something that rarely happened when I read a play.

Reluctantly, Joe picked up the imperfect opus again, protesting every time he turned a page, alternately on strike or grumpy about going on with it, but by the time he got to the end he was in tears, just as moved as I had been.

Excerpted from a chapter in Gail Papp’s forthcoming memoir

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