News / Arts & Entertainment

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.
  • Joe Papp amid construction of the Delacorte Theater in 1961. (Photo Courtesy of The Public Theater)
  • The Delacorte Theater. (Photo: Joseph Moran)
  • Waiting in line for tickets is part of the Shakespeare in the Park experience. (Photo courtesy of The Public Theater)
  • George C. Scott as Shylock in the 1962 Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice, the first production at the Delacorte Theater. (Photo: George E. Joseph/The New York Public Library)
  • Morgan Freeman and George Guidall in the 1990 Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte Theater. (Photo: Martha Swope/ ©The New York Public Library)
  • 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: Michal Daniel)
  • Patina Miller and Tribe in the 2008 Shakespeare in the Park production of HAIR at the Delacorte Theater, directed by Diane Paulus. (Photo: Michal Daniel)
  • Susannah Flood and Will Rogers in the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It, directed by Daniel Sullivan, running as part of The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park season in Central Park. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

"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."

You May Like

In US, Still No Decision in Racially-charged Case

Missouri town, many Americans on edge over whether jurors will indict white police officer in August shooting death of unarmed black teen More

Corruption Fighters Want More From World’s Strongest Nations

Anti-corruption activists say final communique fell short of expectations and failed to fully address systemic problems More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Faminei
X
Daniel Schearf
November 23, 2014 4:32 PM
During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video Law Enforcement, Activists in Ferguson Agree to Keep Peace

Authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, say they have agreed with protest leaders to maintain peace when a grand jury reaches its decision on whether to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of a black teenager. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has been the scene of intermittent violence since the August 9 shooting intensified long-simmering antagonism between the police and the African-American community. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

Avery Sunshine is known for her irresistible combination of soul, jazz and gospel influences. She’s traveled the world entertaining audiences with her powerful voice, inspiring lyrics and infectious spirit. She joins host Shawna Renee on "The Soul Lounge" to perform and share the stories behind her new album, "The Sun Room."