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)
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.