More than twenty-three years ago, I signed a contract with producer Joseph Papp to work on a definitive oral history of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, the most significant not-for-profit theater group in the country. Joe had made theater in America both accessible and essential. He'd produced landmark plays like "Hair," "A Chorus Line," "That Championship Season," "The Normal Heart," and "Short Eyes," plays that people had to pay attention to because they transcended their moment in time. Papp had been essential in starting the careers of actors like George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, and Martin Sheen. He was larger than life just by being himself.
A story like this, filled with alive, articulate, not to say theatrical people, turned out to be especially suited to the oral history format and, over the course of the next 18 months, I interviewed close to 160 people and turned out what I still consider the most significant and compelling work I've done in more than 40 years of journalism. The story of why something with so much to recommend it would take so many years to appear is in some ways as dramatic and surprising as the book itself.
Working with Joe on a project of this scope was enormously exciting, but I also from time to time feared that, as had happened with others he'd worked closely with, a rift would develop between us. And once he read the manuscript, that is what happened, with a vengeance. Disturbed and troubled, Joe refused to allow the book to be published.
Needless to say, this was devastating. The blow was so severe I had difficulty talking about what transpired for weeks, months, even years after it happened. Finally, perhaps a dozen years after the fact, I wrote a letter to Gail Merrifield Papp, Joe's widow and collaborator and a woman whose clear vision and integrity I had always admired and respected. This project, I said, was too important to die. Was there not some way we could bring it back to life? Gail thought there was and we began to talk.
Eventually I went to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire where, as I worked on a new draft, I increasingly felt the powerful responsibility I had to the people who had talked to me at such length. All alone in the woods, I sometimes found myself literally in tears at the thought of the people, Joe first among them, who had been painfully honest about the most significant events of their lives and counted on me to relay their last testament to the world. For roughly 40 of the voices in this book, one out of every four, has died in the two decades since I did the interviewing. No one else will be hearing their stories from their lips, and to read this book is to reenter, as if by magic, a moment in history ripe for rediscovery and amazement. --Kenneth Turan
(Photo © Patricia Williams)
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.