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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

izzard.jpgLast week, the New Year kicked in with almost different 30 productions opening in Southern California. Sadly, I didn't see a single one of them, as I've been on assignment in New York, interviewing the actor/comedian Eddie Izzard who performs his stand up show next weekend at the Nokia Theatre downtown. (The interview will run in Sunday's paper for those who are curious).

But traveling to New York — and traveling over the holidays — gave me a good deal of time on airplanes to read so this week I'd like to tell you about two fascinating, recently been published books about theater.

play.jpgThe first is titled The Play That Changed My Life. The book consists of nineteen American playwrights who through interview and essays, speak about what shows inspired them to pursue a life in the theater.

The man who conceived of this book – and served as its impresario—is Howard Sherman, the Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing. I spoke with him recently when he was in LA:

"In putting together The Play That Changed My Life I wanted to make sure that we were representing the breadth of theater in America. And indeed I was asked ‘How did we choose the people?' And we actually had a grid because we didn't want this to be only the successful, white males. It's easy to do that if you choose to, but both in order to make a book that's interesting and talks about work over a variety of time periods, a variety of styles; by making sure that we had African-American, and Latino, and Asian American voices and that there was a balance between men and women, was really important, because in an Anthology like this, the assumption is going to be: not everyone's going love every essay. But if even only a couple of them touch each reader, hopefully they'll find some message in there that they can relate to their own lives."

The book is filled with interesting details, like Jon Robin Baitz's tales of the drama department at Beverly Hills High School or Horton Foote's fond remembrances of the Pasadena Playhouse during its heyday in the 1920's and 1930's. The Play That Changed My Life is less about particular works that changed these playwrights life, but a testimony to theater's timeless ability to captivate people's passions.

free_for_all.jpgThe other great theater book to be published recently is about one man's passion for theater. Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public Theater and the Greatest Story Ever Told is an oral history compiled by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, tells the incredible story of Joseph Papp and the creation of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Papp was just a guy from Brooklyn with no formal theater training who virtually created the notion of "Shakespeare in the Park" in this country — and in doing so, helped launch the careers of actors such as George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen and many more.

In a time where electronic media is so prevalent, and particularly in Southern California where there's so many outdoor Shakespeare performances that no one really takes notice each summer, it's amazing to read this account of a brief moment when the notion of free Shakespeare was radical and captured the attention of America's biggest city.

Turan interviews all the key players – most of all Joseph Papp himself (who died in 1991). Papp's legendary temper held up publication of the book for almost 20 years, but Turan was patient and he made sure these stories were recorded and now can be appreciated. For anyone interested in the history of theater in America or looking for inspiration on ways to continue theater's relevance in the future, these two books are invaluable.

Next week, we'll be back to talk about some of those 20-some-odd productions that just opened in LA. Until then, The Play That Changed My Life and Free for All are both available in bookstores and on the web.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Free for All

Kenneth Turan and Joe Papp

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