Monday, September 3, 2012

Oral History Usage at Its Best

Superb use of oral history! That's Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, by Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp (published by Doubleday in 2009). Despite ultimately being named as coauthor, the famously mercurial Papp blocked publication of this book in the last years of his life. Kenneth Turan persevered, having interviewed 160 theater pros from Colleen Dewhurst to Mike Nichols to Meryl Streep, and finally he was allowed by Papp's estate to assemble the book that tells the inside stories of New York's one and only Public Theater. It's a riveting business history if I ever read one.

The volume is beautifully organized: back story of the publication itself, brief Papp biog, early years of the venture, then separate chapters on seminal productions starting with "Hair" and taking us through "Aunt Dan and Lemon." Within each chapter we hear the voices of the playwrights, actors, and tech people who worked on the shows. It ends at 1985, which is when Papp froze the project.

But wow, can these folks talk. Dish. Spill. Example by Paul Sorvino, talking about the rehearsals for "That Championship Season," which often turned into brawls: "I had that arrogance of youth that thank god doesn't stay with you too long, if you have any brains at all ... I felt that way about my acting, and that may have bothered some [of the other actors] who were looking for their roles."

Turan captures the strength of the form in his Introduction: "A story like this, filled with alive, articulate not to mention theatrical people, turned out to be especially suited to the oral-history format. There is a vividness and immediacy about direct speech, a sense of life about individuals speaking for themselves, that makes oral history the most intrinsically dramatic of narrative mediums."

Pure catnip for theater nuts like me -- and a noteworthy use of oral history interviews that surpasses even such high-level gems as the Studs Terkel Working books.

Publishing notes and Marian the Grammarian nitpicks: It's a shame that Colleen Dewhurst's name is misspelled, and it's a minor tragedy that a book as good as this one is on remainder (you can find it in the Daedalus catalog).