It’s the end of a beautiful theatrical era and the birth of a new Joe Paparone epic. The 43-year veteran of the SUNY New Paltz Department of Theatre Arts — which helped to birth such talents as John Turturro, Emmy Award-winner Michael Badalucco (The Practice), Cindy Katz and Chicago Broadway star Larry Yando — has announced his retirement, long after the house that he helped build had its masons, designers, technicians and general contractors move on to greener pastures or calmer waters.
When one walks into the office of Paparone, who was hired by SUNY New Paltz in 1970 when the college first started on the great adventure of creating a Theatre major and department, one is stunned by the Wall of Fame: so many talents, dating from the 1970s to the present, who have become cinema stars, Broadway stars, TV personalities, directors, screenwriters, technicians, casting experts, lighting, costume and set designers after having gone through the SUNY New Paltz Theatre Arts program.
After studying with Paparone and the stellar Theatre Department that existed in the 1970s through 2000 at SUNY New Paltz, Turturro — who has starred in several Spike Lee and Coen Brothers films, as well as directed his own hit movies — gave a shout-out (one of many in commencement speeches and award ceremonies) to Paparone and the cast of teachers at SUNY who helped him grow as an actor. “I love the quote, but I can only paraphrase it,” said Paparone, in his office with headshots and framed poster designs that represented the complete breadth and dynasty of the 40+ years that he has taught and directed the undergraduate Theatre majors, as well as acted in many Summer Repertory and 90 Miles Off Broadway plays. “John [Turturro] said that when he was accepted to Yale [Graduate Theatre Program], that they helped him ‘polish’ certain details, but that his ‘car,’ from engine to interior, was built at SUNY New Paltz.”
Paparone, who obviously champions all of his students, became teary-eyed when he recounted this story. Asked what the “car” meant, he said, “At that time, with the talented and diversified staff we had, we didn’t just approach a Theatre major as acting ability. They had to learn lighting, costume, set design, dancing, directing, budgeting…that was the car…and John had that. He was so talented when he came in, so versatile, and his impressions were world-class.”
But, said Paparone, he and his crew would be doing a disservice to those in the program if they solely focused on acting. “They had to learn everything, and get credits in everything, from lighting to costume to design to choreography…and when you look at that wall” of undergraduate portraits, he can rattle of dozens who have gone on to work in the “field of acting,” within the various disciplines in which they were schooled.
Again mentioning Turturro, who has directed and starred in many of his own films, he said, “We made our students learn lighting. Either you’re in the dark or the light, and if you’re supposed to be in either one, you should; but if you’re not, you need to learn to adapt and improve!” And dozens if not hundreds of those students have gone on and will go on to have that coveted and rare chance of making a living in theatre or film.
Although he grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Paparone went on to study at the University of Indiana. When he was looking for a job, it was the late, great Theatre Arts Department chair Vera Irwin who convinced the administration Powers That Be that SUNY New Paltz required a full-fledged department offering a major, being only 75 miles from New York City and witnessing the great talents whom she saw blossoming under her wing. Paparone was hired in 1970, along with a cast of professors and assistants who would assist them all in building one of the greatest Theatre departments in the country.