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A Giant Among Men: John Magaro Interprets the Life of Joe Papp in Illyria

Magaro stars in Richard Nelson's new drama in the Public Theater's group of historic theater makers in their early years.

John Magaro had a major task in front of him. In Richard Nelson's Illyria, he was cast to play one of the theater world's larger-than-life impresarios: Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater and the man who fought New York City bureaucracy to establish the New York Shakespeare Festival, now known as Shakespeare in the Park.

The role of Papp in Illyria requires an acting technique that is the opposite of an actor's usual instincts. Instead of going big, Nelson's drama is a "conversational" play, akin in style to his Apple Family saga. The cast talks in normal level voices and at a conversational pace, and they aren't miked — directorial choices that, Magaro notes, "can be very scary for the people involved."

Magaro is not daunted, though. It's exactly the kind of challenge that this young actor, who made his Broadway debut last year in The Front Page, was looking for.

John Magaro in Richard Nelson's Illyria at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

How much did you know about Joseph Papp before you began the rehearsal process? What kind of research did you do, if any, and what sources were most invaluable to you?

I knew the basics: that he started Shakespeare in the Park and Public Theater. (That's hard to miss when you spend time in Joe's Pub, which is named after him.) And I knew that he could be a bit of a handful. But that was about it. I didn't know about his struggles with Robert Moses, and I didn't know he had been called in front of HUAC.

When I was asked to be a part of this project, Richard made it very clear that we are not imitating the people we are portraying. He was interested in telling a story of young artists struggling and being resilient, a story that would translate today the same way it did in the '50s. So he kind of forbade us to fall down a rabbit hole of research. I had seen some videos and read some articles, but ultimately, what was invaluable to me was just talking to people who had worked with Joe. We are lucky enough to have firsthand accounts readily available in this city. Almost everyone who was working in this business over the years has a story. That I found so helpful in really understanding who Papp was.

Illyria is described as a "conversational" play. Did it take a lot of work on your part to get yourself into the quiet, introspective style of Richard Nelson's script and direction?

I think what Richard is doing is incredibly brave. He is trying to push theater forward and is an innovator in that regard. That doesn't happen often and can be very scary for the people involved — actors, producers, crew, the audience.

I deeply respect what Richard is doing and achieving in his pursuit for verisimilitude. This is a kind of theater I have been looking for for years, and being a part of it at this level is such a joy, and kind of liberating. There are times in that final push for truth that can be scary, but Richard says you just have to jump, and he is right. He accepts that it won't be for everyone. But when it works, I don't think there is anything quite like it.

Tell me about your first time going to Shakespeare in the Park. If you were young, did it make you want to be an actor? If you were older, what did you appreciate about it?
It wasn't even Shakespeare. It was Brecht, Mother Courage back in 2006. I had just moved here. I was young, poor, green, and eager. And it was free and a cool date, so I went. And loved it! I didn't really know what I was getting into. I figured with the people involved (Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, George C. Wolfe, Jeanine Tesori) it would feel removed in a way. I was amazed at how human it was and connected to the audience. It was a lovely shared experience, and you get to drink wine while watching a great show with great actors on a beautiful night. You can't beat that.

Why is the legacy of Joe Papp so important to the theater industry?
The guy basically created public theater that went on to spread throughout the nation. It's the kind of stuff I grew up watching, stuff that inspired me to do this. He also gave us high-quality free theater. And look what he did for this city. He fought to make theater what it has become today. It wasn't just about money; it was about people!

John Magaro stars in Illyria at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

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