Joe once shared with the actor Ian McKellen some of his early experiences producing Shakespeare for school audiences in the 1950s:
“When George C. Scott went out to the schools as Richard III in the early days, he scared the hell out of them and they paid attention, particularly in tough vocational schools. When he got up there, he’d swing one of these huge 14th-century weapons and they would pay attention. It’s the actor’s responsibility to hold the attention of the audience. It must have been true in Shakespeare’s time as well.”
The two Hamlets that Joe saw on Broadway when he was 17: Left, John Gielgud at the St. James Theatre. Right, Leslie Howard at The Imperial Theatre.
Courtesy of the Papp Estate.
“First of all, I thought the speech was so artificial. Everything seemed affected and sort of pompous to me. Sir John was young and handsome, a beautiful figure on the stage and some of the words affected me, but mostly I thought “Why does he have to speak in that fancy way?” I had already studied Julius Caesar in school and I knew you could say the lines in an American way, even in a Brooklyn way, and still understand them if the passion was there.
“There was a very pretty girl sitting in front of me at the time and she was really getting most of my attention, and so I missed a few things here and there. Probably all the soliloquies.”
Forty-eight years later in 1986, Joe put together a repertory company of actors, mostly young, who were black, Hispanic, Asian and white to perform Shakspeare for high school students.
“The stage will have the same kind of population that is in the schools,” Joe said when he announced it.
“We’ll do Macbeth, As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet. Estelle Parsons, the Director, has a good sense of popularizing—not vulgarizing—Shakespeare, and here and there Spanish will come into the lines.”
But unlike his Shakespeare productions for students in the past which had been performed in school auditoriums, these plays in 1986 were to be done at the Belasco Theater on Broadway.
Not only that. Instead of a few performances for students, these three Shakespeare plays were to be done at the Belasco twice a day, six days a week, for nine months!
The students who now packed the 1,042-seat Belasco Theater twice a day arrived on chartered buses accompanied by teachers who had prepped them on the plays. Most had never seen a play or been in a theater before. They were similar to our Mobile Theater audiences—more distractible because they were teenagers—but exceedingly quick and 100% interactive with the play, the players, and the characters. Unlike regular theater-going audiences, they got all the humor.
Joe said, “I would prefer that they become part of a general audience. I don’t like a bunch of kids thrown in together because their interests waver and they kid around with one another. But for the most part, when you do get their attention, it’s a remarkable achievement.”
His point was that when a young person is put in touch with the stimuli of artistic endeavor, either as a spectator or as a participant, a new world opens up. It demonstrates to a young person already cultured by her/his own music, dance or a preacher’s rhetoric, that they possess valuable and useful knowledge “in their bones” and that awareness gives them a feeling of confidence and a desire to learn.
“The black, Hispanic or Asian child begins to understand that his own culture is not something to be concealed or wiped out,” Joe said, “but, on the contrary, it is part of world culture and, as such, is to be nurtured and valued.”