Free for All is an irresistible behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s most beloved and important cultural institutions.
Under the inspired leadership of founder Joseph Papp, the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival brought revolutionary performances to the public for decades. This compulsively readable history of those years—much of it told in Papp’s own words—is fascinating, ranging from a dramatic early showdown with Robert Moses over keeping Shakespeare in the Park free to the launching of such landmark productions as Hair and A Chorus Line. To bring the story to life, film critic Kenneth Turan interviewed some 160 luminaries—including George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, David Rabe, Jerry Stiller, Tommy Lee Jones, and Wallace Shawn—and masterfully weaves their voices into a dizzyingly rich tale of creativity, conflict, and achievement.
Turan, now the film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was approached by theatrical producer Joe Papp in the 1980s to develop an oral history of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, then blocked the book from publication after reading an early draft. Years later, we can understand some of Papp's reluctance: former colleagues speak frankly about his failure to share credit for success with others, and why the effort to move his radical style of theater into Lincoln Center met with failure. Papp's personality can be prickly, to say the least; one of his first reactions to a surprise birthday party thrown by his staff was to wonder what else they could be doing behind his back. But stories like this, or accounts of the backstage turbulence on plays like That Championship Season or True West, never overshadow Papp's creative legacy and his engagement with New York City's diverse society. As dozens of actors, from the late George C. Scott and Anthony Quinn to Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, share their memories, it's easy to see how the constantly hustling Papp became "larger than life just by being himself."