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Free NYC Outdoor Theater Celebrates 50 Years

Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in the 2001 Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Seagull" at the Delacorte Theater, directed by Mike Nichols. (Photo credit: Michal Daniel)

Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in the 2001 Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Seagull" at the Delacorte Theater, directed by Mike Nichols. (Photo credit: Michal Daniel)

NEW YORK CITY — The Delacorte Theater, an outdoor venue in New York's Central Park which is home to the beloved summer tradition, "Shakespeare in the Park," is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

In June, actors Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline led an all-star cast in a staged reading of "Romeo and Juliet."

When Kevin Kline was still a student at the Juilliard School for aspiring actors and musicians, he made his professional debut at the Delacorte Theater.

"My first job was carrying a spear in Richard III," he remembers.

Since then, Kline has spent many summers playing in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.

"We keep returning because it is a special, magical experience," Kline says. "When the weather is right, when the production is right, when things are going well, they go better outdoors in the middle of Central Park in the Delacorte. And it’s a testament to Joe Papp’s vision; the fact that it’s free. "

The late producer Joseph Papp grew up in Brooklyn. He never forgot seeing free band concerts in a park as a child.

As a young man, he wanted to bring free Shakespeare to New Yorkers, says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater.

"It was the idea that culture in a democracy should be the property of all the people," says Eustis, "regardless of their educational attainment, regardless of their financial status or class status, that everybody had the right to own the best that our culture had to offer."

Papp started in 1956 by having a multicultural troupe perform in a band shell. Then the company expanded, presenting Shakespeare on a truck that toured the city.

One of the stops was in Central Park, by a small lake. Papp wanted to build a permanent theater there, but ran into trouble.

"In 1959, Robert Moses, the all-powerful commissioner of parks in New York City, decided that if we wanted to do Shakespeare in the Park, we had to charge money for it and split it with the parks department so that they could reseed the grass," says Eustis. "Joe Papp said no."

Eventually, the city agreed to build an amphitheater on the site. On June 18, 1962, the Delacorte opened with "The Merchant of Venice," starring George C. Scott and a very young James Earl Jones.

Since then, more than five million tickets have been handed out for more than 150 productions at the theater. Eustis says one of the beauties of Shakespeare in the Park is that it’s in the center of Manhattan.

"You’re in this beautiful park, but you can also see the skyline of downtown and midtown below you, you can see the apartments on the East Side and the West Side of the park, you see the planes and helicopters going overhead, sometimes to our distress," he says. "You’re at the heart of the life of the city, seeing great art."

And great actors performing it, like Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Al Pacino.

Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep has performed in "The Taming of the Shrew."

"People in the park, in the audience, feel they are in the play," Streep says. "They're in it with you, you’re sharing this experience."

In the open air theater, anything can happen. Six years ago, Streep and Kline performed in Bertolt Brecht’s "Mother Courage and Her Children," set during the Thirty Years War. They were constantly at war with the weather.

"It was the rainiest summer New York had ever seen," Streep remembers. "And it never rained on the day off, which was very nice, but in the meantime, we came to the theater. They’d say, 'Okay, 50/50 we’re going on. We’re not sure.' And we just decided to go on, because it’s war and we all look like hell, anyway."

"We didn’t want to stop and the audience didn’t want us to stop," Kline says. "So, we played in the rain a few nights and it was magical."

Lily Rabe, who performed in "As You Like It" early this season and once waited in the wings with a raccoon that wandered in from the park, believes nature and Shakespeare are a perfect fit.

"Shakespeare writes so much about things like the sky," she says, "and you get to just look up and it’s right there for you."

"As You Like It" officially opened the 50th season of free "Shakespeare in the Park." That production featured bluegrass music by comedian and actor Steve Martin.

In August, the Delacorte will present Stephen Sondheim’s "Into the Woods."