Joe Papp

in Five Acts

“This wonderful account of the birth of the Public Theater and the zeal and scrappy verve of her creator, Joe Papp, is a testament to the power of one man, with no money, to make a populist miracle”

― Meryl Streep


the Film

Joe Papp in Five Acts is the story of this indomitable, feisty, street-wise champion of the arts.

For anyone not familiar with Joe Papp, he was New York’s larger-than-life, street-wise champion of the arts best known as the founder of The Public Theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park and producer of groundbreaking plays like HairA Chorus Line and for colored girls


In his eyes, art was for everyone, not just a privileged few. “We have public libraries,” he would argue, “Why not public theaters?”

Beginning in the 1950s, his goal was a ‘theater of inclusion’: on-stage, backstage, and in the audience. He was convinced that women, LGBTQ+, Black, Brown, Asian and other marginalized communities, denied power elsewhere in society, could develop it on the stage.

Joe Papp’s great accomplishments and his own, often tumultuous, personal history are told by the artists he helped create—and, in some cases, tried to destroy—including actors James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mandy Patinkin, Martin Sheen, Christopher Walken, Olympia Dukakis and playwrights George C. Wolfe, Ntozake Shange, Liz Swados, David Hare, and Larry Kramer, among others.

Using his life and work as its prism, Joe Papp in Five Acts, aims to keep the legacy of this larger-than-life visionary alive and spark a national conversation about what it means to be American and the role of art in a democracy for a new generation.

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    Tracie Holder CO-Director/Producer/Writer
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    Karen Thorsen CO-Director/Producer/Writer
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    Toshiaki Ozawa Cinematographer
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    Jem Cohen Cinematographer
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    Sam Pollard Editor
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    Brad Fuller Editor
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    Don Byron Composer
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    Abigail E. Disney Executive Producer

Tracie Holder

  Joe Papp In Five Acts is the fruit of Tracie Holder’s personal passion for the subject. Holder, a Brooklyn native, got to know Joe Papp through her previous career in electoral politics—though she’d been an admirer ever since she began going to Shake­speare in the Park at age 16. They met in 1989, when Holder asked Papp to participate in a benefit reading of dramatic works written by women about women. Papp wanted to play Portia, from The Merchant of Venice. Holder noted that Shakespeare was many things but not a woman, and therefore didn’t fit the bill. Initially Papp was indignant but then Holder proposed a play about Emma Goldman. To everyone’s delight—especially his own—Papp became Emma Goldman for a night. It was, by all accounts, a memorable performance.   After years in politics, Holder gravitated to documentary film when she became convinced that visual storytelling has a unique power to create empathy and an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. Thus, her transition to film has been part of a lifelong commitment to further social justice and build a more equitable, inclusive society.   It was soon after Joe Papp’s death in 1991, that she first thought of making a film about this street-wise champion of the arts.   In the time since then, Holder has worked in a variety of roles in independent media – documentary filmmaker, producer, engagement specialist, funding strategist, and consultant.   A 2016 Sundance Creative Producers Fellow, Holder leads workshops in the U.S. and abroad, tutors and serves on juries at international pitching and training sessions. She has been honored with grant awards of more than $3 million from major film funders including Ford and MacArthur Foundations, Sundance, NEA, NEH, NYS Council for the Arts, CPB, ITVS, PBS/ American Masters, among others.   Holder’s company, Means of Production, works with filmmakers and other artists to help them realize their own visions. Clients include: IDFA, Ramallah Doc, Lisbon Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Scottish Documentary Institute, Ignite Ireland, Firelight Media, DOC NYC, Creative Capital, Chicken & Egg, Black Public Media, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Union Docs, and Gotham Media, among others.   She was a longtime consultant to Women Make Movies and served as the Development & Funding Strategist for Abby Disney’s Fork Films. Holder is a former board member of NY Women in Film, grant panelist for national and local funders and teaches at the New York Film Academy.   Her producing credits include Grit, (Hot Docs/POV), The Quiet Zone, and One Person, One Vote? in production. Holder is currently directing The People’s Will, a feature-length documentary film about the rivalry between two Shakespearean actors in New York City in 1849, that led to a riot of 15,000 people in which 22 were killed. The riot marked the first time American troops would fire on American citizens. The People’s Will was one of four projects nationally awarded an NEH production grant in 2020.


Award-winning writer/filmmaker Karen Thorsen finds inspiration at the intersection of art and social justice.  Her heroes are game-changers, the artist/activists who shape history; her films tell stories without narration, weaving first-person narratives with archival treasures.   Thorsen began as a writer.  After graduating from Vassar College, with a year at the Sorbonne, she was an editor for Simon & Schuster, journalist for LIFE Magazine, and foreign correspondent for TIME.  Screenwriting followed, then directing. Her first feature-length documentary was JAMES BALDWIN:  THE PRICE OF THE TICKET (1990), co-produced with Bill Miles in collaboration with Maysles Films and PBS/American Masters.  Now considered a classic, it has been honored in twenty-five countries.   In 2015, the film was re-mastered in WideScreen 2KHD—and is the centerpiece of the JAMES BALDWIN PROJECT, international outreach & engagement focused on racism, discrimination and the meaning of brotherhood.  Supported by the Ford Foundation, NEA, State Humanities Councils and other non-profit donors, JBP film screenings, community forums and online events have already reached millions.   JBP works-in-progress include THE DISORDER OF LIFE, a memoir of Thorsen’s collaboration with Baldwin; CONVERSATIONS WITH JIMMY, a series of community-based film screenings + talkbacks; JAMES BALDWIN OUTLOUD, a five-act performance of Baldwin quotations; and KEEP IT LIT, a digital design-your-own Baldwin curriculum.   Thorsen’s second PBS/American Masters production is JOE PAPP IN FIVE ACTS, a feature-length doc made with Co-Producer/Director Tracie Holder.  Already premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, its first PBS broadcast will be on 6/3/22.  The following week – on 6/11/22 – PBS will rebroadcast Thorsen’s JAMES BALDWIN:  THE PRICE OF THE TICKET.  Two artist/advocate films in one month!   Beyond BALDWIN and PAPP, Thorsen’s credits include broadcast productions, museum installations, documentary shorts and interactive media—often in collaboration with DKDmedia’s Douglas K. Dempsey.  Their films have screened on six continents and in six museums on the National Mall; permanent installations include the Smithsonian Museum of American History, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Great Platte River Archway and Pilgrim Hall Museum.  Recognition ranges from multiple THEA and festival honors to Parents Choice and the Oscar Short-List.  Recent projects include:
  • NICE MAN COMETH – Play-on-Film with Michael Tucker & Jill Eikenberry, presented online by a series of theater companies from Maine to California.
  • INSIDE THE GLASS HOUSE: EXPLORING PHILIP JOHNSON – Interactive mix of long & short-form docs with photogrammetry, point clouds, 3D imagery.
  • PEACEJAM: CHANGE STARTS HERE, a series of film shorts about teenage activists mentored by Nobel Laureates.
  • THOMAS PAINE: VOICE OF REVOLUTION – Feature-length documentary + museum app (an NEH “We The People” project).

Toshiaki Ozawa

Toshiaki Ozawa was born in Tokyo and lives in Bern after calling NYC home for 35 years. He is best known for his appearance in Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, his work behind (and in front of) camera on Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman’s Golden Globe winner, Mozart in the Jungle, as well as his contributions to Laurie Anderson’s, Academy Award shortlisted, Heart of a Dog. He and actor Vincent Gallo collaborated on The Brown Bunny, named by Cahier du Cinéma 2004’s ten best films. At Cannes 2003, it was also called “the worst film in the history of the festival” by critic Roger Ebert. Beyond the above, his collaborators include Isaac Julien, Mario Testino, Vera von Lehndorff [Veruschka], Mark Seliger, Mario Sorrenti, Heather Dewey Hagborg, and dozens more. At 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Ozawa spoke on the future of digital cinema, and shared his expertise in 3D stere graphy at Createasphere HD Expo 2009. He was shortlisted for Creative Capital 2020 and named Sundance Institute-Time Warner Fellow in 2017/2018.

  Cinematographer Toshiaki Ozawa was born in Tokyo and lives in Bern after calling NYC home for 35 years. He is best known for his appearance in Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, his work behind (and in front of) camera on Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman’s Golden Globe winner, Mozart in the Jungle, as well as his contributions to Laurie Anderson’s, Academy Award shortlisted, Heart of a Dog. He and actor Vincent Gallo collaborated on The Brown Bunny, named by Cahier du Cinéma 2004’s ten best films (along with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Hou Hsia-hsien’s Cafe Lumiére and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2). At Cannes 2003, it was also called “the worst film in the history of the festival” by critic Roger Ebert. Beyond the above, his collaborators include Isaac Julien, Mario Testino, Vera von Lehndorff [Veruschka], Mark Seliger, Mario Sorrenti, Heather Dewey Hagborg, and dozens more. At 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Ozawa spoke on the future of digital cinema, and shared his expertise in 3D stere graphy at Createasphere HD Expo 2009. He was shortlisted for Creative Capital 2020 and named Sundance Institute-Time Warner Fellow in 2017/2018.    


Filmmaker/photographer Cohen’s feature-length films include Museum Hours, Counting, Chain, Benjamin Smoke, Instrument, and World Without End (No Reported Incidents). Shorts include Lost Book Found, Little Flags, and Anne Truitt – Working. His films are in the collections of NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Jewish Museum, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and Melbourne’s Screen Gallery. They have been broadcast by PBS, Arte, and the Sundance Channel. He’s had retrospectives at Harvard Film Archive, London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Indielisboa, BAFICI, Oberhausen, Gijon, and Punto de Vista Film Festivals. His multi-media show with live music, We Have an Anchor, was a main stage production in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave series, and at London’s Barbican. His current show of film with live soundtracks, Gravity Hill Sound+Image, has been presented in Istanbul, Porto, New York City, Nantes, and Knoxville, TN. He is a Guggenheim, Alpert, and Rockefeller Fellow, and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital Foundation, SJ Weiler Fund, the Jerome Foundation, Greenwall Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, and New York Foundation for the Arts. Awards include the Independent Spirit Award and San Francisco Film Society’s Persistence of Vision Award. Cohen has had multiple residencies at the Macdowell Colony and Yaddo. Cohen has worked extensively with musicians including Patti Smith, Fugazi, Terry Riley, R.E.M., Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Xylouris White, DJ Rupture, the Ex, Elliott Smith, Vic Chesnutt, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Matana Roberts, Jessica Moss, Jonathan Richman, T.Griffin/Catherine McRae, White Magic, and the Orpheus Orchestra with Gil Shaham, and has collaborated with writers Luc Sante and Sam Stephenson, and graphic artist Ben Katchor. He has taught at SUNY Purchase, International Center of Photography, and Rutgers University and currently teaches at The New School. Working with Picture New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union, Cohen was extensively involved in overturning proposed restrictions on street photography and filming in New York City.  

Sam Pollard

Has spent the last four decades crafting stories primarily detailing the African American experience—stories that reveal complex protagonists (Citizen Ashe; Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta be Me), examine a system of exploitation and racial oppression (Slavery by Another Name), and bring to the forefront conversations on racial injustice on children of color by law enforcement (The Talk: Race in America). The Harlem native’s impressive oeuvre boasts a cross-pollination of nonfiction and fiction, historical events and contemporary issues, and portraits of entertainers and politicians.   The multi-hyphenate editor-producer-director-writer, the 2020 IDA Career Achievement Award honoree, received IDA’s Avid Excellence in Editing Award in 2008 and won a 2003 IDA Documentary Award for Best Limited Series for The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, which he produced with Bill Jersey and Richard Wormser. This year, Pollard’s film MLK/FBI is nominated for three IDA Documentary Awards: Best Feature, Best Director and ABC News VideoSource Award for best use of footage. In addition, the series Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered, for which he co-directed two episodes and is credited as executive producer, is nominated for Best Multi-Part Documentary.   Pollard is an Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming for By the People: The Election of Barack Obama and an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction special for Sinatra: All or Nothing at All.   Pollard was editor on five of director Spike Lee’s narrative films, as well as four of his documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated 4 Little Girls, the IDA Documentary Award and Emmy Award-winning When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts about the tragic effects of Hurricane Katrina, and its sequel, the Emmy-nominated If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.    

Brad Fuller

Began his career as associate editor on Errol Morris’ first film, Gates of Heaven. They went on to work on six more films together, including Vernon, Florida (editor), The Thin Blue Line (associate producer/sound), A Brief History in Time (editor), Standard Operating Procedure (co-editor), and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (additional editor). Other editing credits include Gary Oldman’s BAFTA Award-winning dramatic feature, Nil by Mouth, Neil Burger’s Interview with the Assassin, the Oscar-nominated documentary short, Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story, and the feature documentaries Every Little Step–shortlisted for the 2010 Oscars–Countdown to Zero, Rebirth, The Price of Everything, Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala and Free Solo (additional editor).    

Don Byron

  New York-born Don Byron is a singular voice in an astounding range of musical contexts, exploring widely divergent traditions while continually striving for what he calls “a sound above genre.” As clarinetist, saxophonist, composer, arranger, and social critic, he redefines every genre of music he plays, be it classical, salsa, hip-hop, funk, klezmer, rhythm & blues, gospel, or any jazz style from swing and bop to cutting-edge downtown improvisation. Since the early 1990s, Byron has been consistently voted best clarinetist by leading international music magazines. Acclaimed as much for his restless creativity as for his unsurpassed virtuosity as a player, he has presented a multitude of projects at major music festivals around the world. Among the numerous bands he has fronted are Bug Music, Music for Six Musicians, a klezmer ensemble, and the R&B band dedicated to Junior Walker’s music. He currently leads three bands: a quartet, the Ivey-Divey Trio, and the New Gospel Quintet. His countless collaborations with other artists range from the Duke Ellington Orchestra to Daniel Barenboim and from Salif Keita to Allen Toussaint. He has composed and arranged music for chamber ensembles, dance, and film, including soundtracks for the documentaries “Strange Fruit” and “Red-Tailed Angels,” and he has acted in films directed by Robert Altman and Paul Auster. As artistic director and artist-in-residence, Byron has produced distinguished concert series for the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at New York’s Symphony Space. Also a gifted teacher, he has led residencies at many universities, including Harvard and Columbia. He was a visiting Professor at MIT in 2007/08 and at SUNY Albany from 2005-09, teaching theory, saxophone, improvisation, and composition. Don Byron’s discography comprises a dozen albums for mostly Blue Note and Nonesuch Records. Ivey-Divey, his 2004 Lester Young tribute recording, was voted Record of the Year by Jazz Times Magazine and nominated for a Grammy Award. In 2007, Byron was awarded with both a Guggenheim and a USA Prudential Fellowship. In 2009, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his composition “7 Etudes for Piano” and the recipient of the Samuel Barber Rome Prize for Composition and a one-year artist residency at the American Academy in Rome

Abigail E. Disney

Advocates for real changes to the way capitalism operates in today’s world. She has worked with programs supporting low-income families, women’s rights, and global poverty for thirty years. She is an Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker, activist, and co-founder of Fork Films, a nonfiction media production company, which produces the podcast “All Ears,” where she interviews bold, solutions-oriented thinkers from the front lines of America’s urgent inequality and race crises. Her documentary, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” which she co-directed with Kathleen Hughes, made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. She is the Chair and Co-Founder of Level Forward, a new breed storytelling company focused on systemic change through creative excellence, balancing financial and social returns. She created the nonprofit Peace is Loud, which uses storytelling to advance social movements, and the Daphne Foundation, which supports organizations working for a more equitable, fair and peaceful New York City.  


Past Screenings
Upcoming Screenings

No upcoming screenings available

St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, St. Louis, MO

07/14/2021 4:00 pm CST

National Center for Jewish Film Festival, Boston, MA

11/18/2021 5:00 pm EST

Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival, West Bloomfield, MI

10/14/2021 3:00 pm EST

American Documentary Film Festival, Palm Springs, CA

05/21/2021 5:00 pm PST

Seattle Jewish Film Festival, Seattle, WA

05/11/2021 12:00 am PST

Salt Spring Film Festival – Salt Spring Island, BC

05/12/2021 2:00 pm PST

New Jersey Jewish Film Festival

08/18/2021 1:00 pm EST

Washington, D.C. Jewish Film Festival

04/07/2021 12:00 am EST

Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival

03/24/2021 12:00 am EST

Tucson International Jewish Film Festival

06/18/2021 2:00 pm MST


In 1854, John Jacob Astor bequeathed $400,000 to establish a public library in New York City. When it opened the demand for books was so great that a second and then third building were added. In 1895, the collection moved uptown to what would become the celebrated main branch of @nypl, while the downtown building would eventually become the home to @publictheaterny. ...

During WWII, #JoePapp put on vaudeville sketches for fellow sailors. Also on his ship was a young sailor, #BobFosse, who Papp took under his wing. Fosse's time in the Navy opened the door to a lifelong career in theater (including ALL THAT JAZZ). The same was true for Papp. ...

#Hair, now considered a classic, was not universally loved when it first opened in 1967. In response to a survey @publictheaterny sent out, responses such as the following weren't uncommon. "Two thousand years of dramatic literature and you chose this one! It's not art! It's not even entertaining." ...

Film director @stanleykubrick cast George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove after seeing the actor perform as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1962, the very first production of the #DelacorteTheater in Central Park. Kubrick also cast James Earl Jones who played the Prince of Morocco in the same production. ...

What a beautiful evening in the park! Thank you to everyone who came out to “Movies Under the ✨” at @bushwickinletpark to watch #JoePappFilm with us. ...

#JoePappFilm #AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts #JoePapp #theatre #ShakespeareInThePark ...

🎥 Under the ✨🌙✨ has been rescheduled (due to weather)! Join us for a screening event of #JoePappFilm @bushwickinletpark to celebrate the birthday of #JoePapp. ...

#JoePapp by by #AlHirschfeld. ...

46 years ago in #VillageVoice.

#throwback #JoePapp

🎉 #NYC friends! On June 22, celebrate the birthdays of two artists — #MerylStreep and #JoePapp — by joining us for a special screening of #JoePappFilm @bushwickinletpark. ...

Theater critic @davidcotenyc explores the legacy of #JoePapp. pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters

#AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts #JoePappFilm

“At a time when theatre was largely the domain of white men, he was convinced that women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and other marginalized communities, denied power elsewhere in society, could develop it on the stage. His goal was a ‘theater of inclusion’ on-stage, backstage and in the audience.” Look for coverage in @forbes to read more.

#JoePappFilm #AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts @publictheaterny

Christopher Walken as Iago and Raul Julia as Othello in a scene from the New York Shakespeare Central Park production of #Othello.

#JoePappFilm #JoePapp @publictheaterny #ChristopherWalken #RaulJulia

Papp's production of The Cherry Orchard, Chekov's celebrated play, featured Meryl Streep and Raul Julia. Streep and Julia would join forces again two years later in another Papp production, this time of The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park.


#JoePapp fought against a world dominated by commercial interests to produce theater inspired by writers, thinkers and other social visionaries wanting to change the world. #JoePappFilm premieres tonight at 9/8c on PBS. Make plans to watch!

@publictheaterny #AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts

Inspired by the public library, #JoePapp created @publictheaterny based on the radically democratic idea that everyone deserves access to great art. #JoePappFilm premieres tonight (June 3rd) at 9/8c on PBS.

#AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts

#JoePappFilm premieres today, June 3rd at 9/8c on PBS! Make plans to watch. 📺

#AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts

#JoePappFilm made the "What to Watch" list in @nytimes! Make plans to tune in tomorrow (June 3rd) on PBS.

#AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts #documentary #JoePapp

Puerto Rican-born Raul Julia was struggling to make it as an actor when he first moved to NYC. Desperate for work, he told Papp he'd clean toilets but had to have a job in theater. Papp instantly offered him a job and soon #RaulJulia's career took off.

@rauljulialevy @publictheaterny #Macbeth

Everything today’s theater wants – racial diversity, gender equality, equal opportunity – are the values that Joe fought for, and to an astonishing extent, achieved sixty years ago. His goal was a 'theater of inclusion': on-stage, backstage, and in the audience.

#JoePappFilm premieres tomorrow, June 3rd at 9/8c on PBS.

#AmericanMastersPBS #PBSForTheArts #JoePapp #documentary

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