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By Gina Pace

BROADWAY MAY BE the center of plays and musicals in New York City, but for many locals, Shakespeare in Central Park during the summer is the quintessential theater experience.

Over the years such distinguished actors as George C. Scott, Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman have performed there underneath the stars. Yet the most unusual aspect about the shows is that everyone who attends Shakespeare in Central Park sees the works for free. Anxious theater-goers line up two to three hours – and many times longer – before ticket distribution on the day they want to see a performance at the Delacorte Theater in western Central Park near 81st Street. About 2,000 tickets are distributed for each performance.

“I don’t know of any other theater that comes to mind where you have that amount of people attending something for free,” said Jordan Thaler, the casting director of the Public Theater, the organization that produces Shakespeare in Central Park.

“You are outside in the middle of New York City, one of the busiest places on the planet. But you can come in and watch the show and you just relax.”
— Karen Lichtman,
Public Theater employee
Thaler, who walks his dog in Central Park near the Delacorte, will often see people lining up at 6:30 a.m. for the 1 p.m. ticket distribution. He thinks the process of waiting in line for tickets on performance day means everyone there is enthusiastic about the show. “People are really dedicated to seeing a play at the Delacorte,” he said. “They want it to be great. They want to enjoy themselves. It’s really funny when it rains and people refuse to leave.”       

Director and producer Joseph Papp founded Shakespeare in Central Park in 1954. It started with a Shakespeare workshop, and then moved to free productions on the Lower East Side, according to Arlene Kriv, the director of communications for the Public Theater.

The plays made their way to a lawn in front of Turtle Pond, until then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses demanded Shakespeare in Central Park charge admission for a “grass erosion” fund in 1959. After a court battle, Moses requested the City’s Board of Estimate appropriate $250,000 for the construction of a Shakespeare amphitheater in Central Park. In 1961, the Delacorte Theater was constructed, with contributions from George T. Delacorte, then president of Dell Publishing. In 1962, the first performance held in the theater was a production of “The Merchant of Venice” staring George C. Scott and James Earl Jones.

New Yorkers have had access to free summer theater ever since that first performance in the Delacorte. The plays are usually works by Shakespeare, but there are exceptions, such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” featuring Kevin Klein in 1980, and Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” with Klein, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Natalie Portman in 2001.

This year, as the Public Theater celebrates its 50th anniversary, there will be two different plays – “As You Like It” which will run from June 25 to July 17, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which will run from Aug. 9 to Sept. 4. The Public Theater has not been able to stage two separate plays for the last few years due to funding issues, Thaler said.

Shakespeare in Central Park is among the best theater in New York City, said Karen Lichtman, who has worked at the Public Theater for the past nine years, helping out with ticket distribution during the day and working on security during the performances.

“It is truly a unique experience,” she said. “It sits right on Turtle Pond and the Belvedere Castle is the backdrop for every show that we do. Once the sun goes down, it’s just so beautiful – it’s a backdrop that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You are outside in the middle of New York City, one of the busiest places on the planet. But you can come in and watch the show and you just relax – it’s like being on vacation for a few hours.”

SLIDE SHOW: Take a tour of the Shakespeare Garden.
MAP: Delacorte Theater
MAP: Elva Ramirez
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Quick facts

Cost: Free

The Delacorte Theater has 1,892 seats. About 80,000 people see Shakespeare in Central Park every summer.

Average wait for tickets:
Two to three hours. The staff of the Public Theater will tell those waiting for tickets when the last person to receive tickets lined up the day before.

Where to get tickets:
The Delacorte Theater on the western side of Central Park at 81st Street or at the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette St.

Shows that started at the Delacorte and then went to Broadway:

“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the musical, 1970-1971 season;

“Pirates of Penzance,” 1979-1980 season

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” 1984-1985 season

“The Tempest,” 1995-1996 season

“On the Town,” 1996-1996 season

Source: The Public Theater

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