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Joe Papp's 'Championship' genius

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The New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater has been the most significant not-for-profit theater group in this country since it was founded by Joe Papp more than 50 years ago. During his lifetime (he died in 1991), Papp made theater in America both accessible and essential.

From the late '60s to the mid-'80s, he produced landmark plays such as "Hair," "A Chorus Line," "That Championship Season," "The Normal Heart" and "Short Eyes," plays that transcended their moment in time. Papp also was essential in starting the careers of actors such as George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones and Martin Sheen.

A story like this, filled with lively, articulate, not to say theatrical people, turned out to be especially suited to the oral history format, and over 18 months in the late 1980s, I interviewed close to 160 people, many for hours at a time, to produce a book called "Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told."

Working with Papp on a project of this scope was enormously exciting, but from time to time I feared that, as had been the case with others he'd worked closely with, a rift would develop between us. Once he read the manuscript, that is what happened, more than two decades ago: He refused to let the book to be published.

Finally, years after the fact, I wrote a letter to Gail Merrifield Papp, Joe's widow and collaborator. 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.

As I worked on another draft, I increasingly felt the powerful responsibility I had to the people who'd talked to me at such length, people 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. Roughly 40 of the voices in this book, to be published this week by Doubleday, have died since I did the interviewing. No one else will be hearing the stories from their lips, and to read this book is to reenter a moment in history ripe for rediscovery and amazement.

Joe Papp was best known as an adventurous producer of new work and his particular gifts are on display in the story of "That Championship Season," a Pulitzer-winning play about the troubled reunion of a former high school coach and the now-middle-age players he led to a basketball title. Joe first provided the necessary backing for tyro playwright Jason Miller (an actor best known as the young priest in "The Exorcist") and then held the production together when a fractious relationship among the actors began to mirror what happens in the play.

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Jason Miller: I was an actor but I had written a play called "Nobody Hears a Broken Drum," which was about the Irish miners' revolt in Pennsylvania against the oppressiveness of the basically English mine owners. It was done off-Broadway, where [theater critic] Clive Barnes objected to its anti-English tone.

It was not a success, and I went to Fort Worth, Texas, to do a stint in "The Odd Couple" in summer theater. I had all my afternoons off, and I mean, in Fort Worth in 1969, what are you gonna do? So I sat there for four or five hours a day, I was there for eight weeks, and I finished "Championship Season."

My first play had 20 characters, which even then was kind of prohibitive. I wanted something of mine done, I realized that I couldn't do the Sistine Chapel, and I decided to bring the scope down a bit. The new play ended up with one room and five men.

Papp: Jason Miller -- everyone called him Jack -- was in a play we were producing called "Subject to Fits," written by Robert Montgomery and directed by A.J. Antoon, and, boy, I thought he was a good actor.

Jason was thin, his face always kind of gaunt and there was a certain intensity to him, but he had an ingenuous smile that was very, very nice. He'd never strike you as an intellectual, there was not an ounce of affectation in him. He never changed, never turned bourgeois. He let it be known that he was a writer as well as an actor, and I finally said, "Why don't you send me the play?"

He brought it in, I read it, and I felt, "It's interesting, there's some nice things in it, but, boy, this play has a lot of problems." It would have meant really redoing it.

Jason had earlier submitted the play to some producers who were interested in doing it as a Broadway show. About a week after I'd read it he said they wanted to go ahead and I said, "Terrific." Someone else wants to do it, my God, what a load off my mind.

Six months went by, and he came around to the office.

"They dropped the option."

"Why?"

"They worked on it, they made some changes in it, they didn't like the changes they made, so they didn't like the play."

I took the play and I could not believe what they did with it. They'd emasculated that play, they'd actually butchered the whole thing, and then they said they didn't like it. It was so typical.

"Oh, my God," I said. "They just ruined your play."

"What do you think, can you do it?"

"Jack, there's a lot of stuff in there that needs work."

"Can't we have a reading of it?"

"I don't see how I can do that."

The next thing I know, he came in with A.J. Antoon, who was one of my prime directors at that point, terrific, a marvelous disposition and a whimsical mind.

"Joe," he said. "I think this is a good play, and I'd love to direct it. Can't we have a reading of it?" Jason came in again, brought his wife in, his kids were there too, laying it heavily on me, and I'm a sucker for that. So I said OK to the reading.

A.J.Antoon, director: I left the Yale Drama School in the middle of my second year and came to New York. I did a workshop at St. Clement's Church of a Chekhov Story Theater and an actress who saw it set up a meeting with Joe Papp.

Joe seemed very friendly, very in control, smoked a large cigar during the whole thing. I think he was impressed with the fact that I didn't like Yale. He said he didn't want to do the Chekhov, but he liked my work, and if I could come up with another project, he would give me the space.

I ran into Jason on the street one day, and he was very, very, very depressed that these Broadway producers had dropped his play.

I said, "Joe is the writer's producer. Why don't I go in and say, 'Joe, they've ruined this guy's play. What do you think?' " And that's exactly what I did.

"I used to like that play," Joe said. "That play's been on my shelf. I was thinking of doing it at one point."

Jason was acting in a play in Washington, D.C., and I suggested that I go down there. And before and after his performance we would sit down and collate the two scripts. Cutting and pasting and retyping, we put together a new script and brought that to Joe.

Miller: I was down in Washington doing "Juno and the Paycock" with Geraldine Fitzgerald and A.J. came down with the two scripts.

We stayed for a week in this very cold, drafty apartment in a place called Turkey Thicket, and we rewrote and rewrote. At the end of that week, we came right back to the original script that was plucked out of the air, not a word changed. Not a word.

He brought it to Joe, and Joe said, "I'm not interested."

Joe was into expanding the consciousness of the American theater, à la avant-garde stuff, derivative European stuff, competition against La Mama. He was very anti-Broadway, very anti-commercialism, very anti-star system. He was looking for the playwright with newness, I suppose, and this was a three-act play because these were three-act people.

But Joe had loved "Subject to Fits," and he was intrigued that A.J., who seemed to be the Ionesco director of our time, got involved in this traditional, boxed, three-act play. And he said to A.J., "Let me hear a reading of it. You cast it. You guys pick it." He gave us total artistic freedom. We knew actor's actors, no stars, no great names, but guys who were powerful and solid, whose egos would be submitted to the service of the play.

Antoon: We put together a wonderful cast: Patrick McVey played the Coach, Chuck Cioffi played the businessman, and Charles Durning, Walter McGinn and Michael McGuire played the parts they later had in the full production.

Charles Durning, actor: I had done all these Shakespearean plays for Joe, but I was playing the clowns and I wanted to play some heavy roles, something more dramatic. I told Joe, and he said, "You're here to serve our needs, we're not here to serve yours. But when a part comes along that I think you're right for, you'll get it."

Jason Miller said to me, "I have a play that I think you'd be good for." Now, I'd heard that over and over again, so I said, "Yeah, yeah, send it to me, it would be terrific," knowing full well that it would never happen. But once Joe decided to do it, he gave it to me, immediately. I was the first one cast in that show. "Remember when I said about when I had a part for you? Here it is, if you want to play it." Without reading it, I said, "I want to play it. I don't give a . . . . I'll play it."

Miller: A.J. took the guys and rehearsed them for three days. I watched Papp out of the corner of my eye, lighting a cigar, leaning on the table and kind of laughing, and I knew that he was mightily impressed by this initial reading of this straight, realistic play which he had eschewed.

Joe dismissed everybody and he took A.J. and myself up to his office. He lit a cigar, walked around, had one of those long Papp pauses, and said, "I'll do it. You guys cast it, but you gotta get me a Coach. If you find me a Coach, I'll do the play."

Papp: I called A.J. and Jason into my office and I said, "I love you guys, you're so terrific, but I just don't see myself doing this play. There are so many problems with it, I don't want to get involved. Just for example . . ."

I began to demonstrate this, I began to demonstrate that, I said, "Why does this happen in the ending?" I spoke for about an hour, and though I had been absolutely determined not to do that play, before I knew it, I said, "OK, I'll do it." I talked myself into it just by dealing with the problems of the play.

Miller: I believe Papp reserved the right to pick the Coach because he identified very deeply with this role, very, very deeply. What you've got is a strong, powerful, dictatorial figure who has compassion and love as well as his own built-in cultural prejudices, his own demons. Joe Papp, beyond all the liberalism, beyond the socialism, beyond his immense social consciousness, was the Coach.

Paul Sorvino, actor: I met A.J. Antoon, we talked a little bit, and he said, "I'd really like you to come and meet Mr. Papp and read for him."

"I don't know," I said, "I'll have to read the play." So I took the play, and as is my wont, I started reading it at traffic lights driving back to New Jersey. By the time I came into the house, I'd read better than half of it, I was really pulsating with excitement when I walked in.

I finished reading, absolutely broken down in tears for the great tragedy of it. I looked up at my wife, and as I'm weeping, I said to her, "This is the greatest play since 'Death of a Salesman.' If I do this play in New York, I'll become a star overnight." That's what I said.

I went in on Monday and auditioned for Joe Papp, A.J. and Jason. I read two speeches, got very excited and threw the script down during one of them. Later, I heard that someone had said, "I wonder if he respects the material," because I had thrown the script on the ground in the emotion of the moment.

"I don't know about that," Papp said, "but he's the guy who's going to play the role."

Papp: A crisis began to arise during the rehearsal period. The actors came to me like every day. They began to hate Paul Sorvino. He was a rather easygoing kind of character, he would fool around a lot and he never approached it seriously. The others would say, "He's not an actor," and so forth and so on. I never saw people behave so badly. I mean, Charlie Durning was going to kill him.

One day, [actor] Richard Dysart walked in and said to me, "Listen, it's either him or me."

"Goodbye," I said. "What the hell's the matter with you guys?" There was a tremendous amount of turbulence, but I would not let any of those things stop the play.

Dysart: Joe was there, and yet he wasn't there. He wasn't physically there all the time, but Joe's overall guidance, Joe's overall selectivity process, was the key to bringing everything together. He oversaw it without intruding.

Durning: It was like a family, like brothers who hate each other one day and love each other the next.

A.J. and I became very good friends afterwards, but this was A.J.'s first major thing, and he and I were having a lot of trouble. He was an unfrocked priest, a Jesuit, he was very, very, very bright, and I didn't understand any of that brightness. I thought he was condescending, and wouldn't listen to other people's input. I quit the show three times. And Joe kept saying, "What the . . . is the matter with you? You've got a play like this, and you're gonna go quit?"

"I'll stay with the play if you direct it," I said.

"I can't direct it. I've got other things to do."

"You come down once a week and direct me. I can handle everything else in between. But I don't want to talk to the director anymore."

"You've got to talk to him. He's standing there."

There was a moment after I tried to shoot Phil, Paul Sorvino's character, when I put my head through the window to holler at him. At the end of it, I banged my head on the window, which brought a big laugh. A.J. said to me, "This is a dramatic moment. You shouldn't get a laugh there."

"The dramatic moment is over when I don't kill him," I said. "It is a legitimate laugh, because it relieves tension. The only way I'm going to change it is if Joe comes down here and tells me to change it."

So Joe came down, he saw it, and he said, "Leave it in."

Joe would come down once a week and look at the play. "Take that scene out of there and put it here," he'd say. "Take that over there. Get that line away from here. And take that line and give it back to him." And it would work better.

"How do you know how to do that?" I said to him.

"How do you know how to delineate a character?"

"That's my job."

"That's my job."

Miller: It was like therapy, but it was beyond therapy. The play brought out some primordial male paranoia and competition and sense of betrayal that they could not leave on the stage.

Two characters would always band together against the other two characters. "What's he doing? Son of a bitch! Is he upstaging me?" And then the next week it would switch. Then, and this is just human psychology, they were in the grip of something that was a bit beyond them as human beings, they went after the Coach, who was the father figure. Finally, Joe Papp came down. He walked onstage after a rehearsal and he said, "You've got something here, boys, and the only ones that can destroy it is yourselves." And that's all he said. I'll never forget that.

Papp: It was a gorgeous opening, because I felt so proud of that company. I would say this was the best ensemble acting we've ever had. And I was so proud of Jack. The play won every prize.

Bernard Gersten, associate producer of the Public Theater: "Championship Season" was just a stunner, because it was a triple-crown winner, which in New York theater means the New York Drama Critics' Circle, the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. To win any of these is quite something; to win all three is almost unheard of.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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