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

Polls Open in Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

China-India Border Standoff Continues as Leaders Hold Summit

New Delhi accuses hundreds of Chinese soldiers of illegally entering Indian territory in disputed region of Ladakh More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Graham Nash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with The Hollies and once as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The legendary folk-rocker joins "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his latest project, “CSN 2012,” which captured on video recent live performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash.