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As part of our 10-year strategic plan, the Board of Trustees and Executive Leadership announced our intent to revitalize the 56-year-old Delacorte Theater in Central Park to ensure that Free Shakespeare in the Park is vibrantly sustained for generations to come.
Our goal is twofold: First, to expand access to our beloved summer programs – not by adding more seats or expanding the theater's footprint in the park, but by streamlining operations and improving efficiencies to shorten the amount of time between productions. This way, we can add more performances into each season, and provide more free theater for all.
Second, we'll be able to address critical infrastructure and accessibility challenges and provide a better, more comfortable experience for audiences, artists, and staff for years to come.
Our priority has always been and will always be to protect and honor our home, Central Park. It is one of the most beautiful and democratic spaces in our city – the backdrop to every performance and an inspiration in our work. Over the next several months we will be working closely alongside city officials, NYC Parks, Central Park Conservancy, the Landmarks Commission, the DCLA, our community partners, and other key stakeholders as our planning takes shape.
Since 1962, over 5 million people have gathered inside the Delacorte to experience world class Shakespeare and other productions at no-cost. The mission of The Public and Free Shakespeare in the Park has remained constant. Today, our mission is being pursued in a much-evolved context, and with new standards and new needs.
The Delacorte has only had minor upgrades over the past 56 years. Today, the theater is not fully able to meet the needs of the top-tier productions that call it home. The theater’s popularity has surged over its lifespan, and it has outgrown its exisitng infrastructure in almost every measureable way: from providing sufficient resources and space for staff and artists to ensuring equitable access and comfort for audiences.
Delivering an accessible theater experience: Built in the late 1950s, all of the theater’s ramps, rails, and key access points don’t meet current accessibility standards for all audiences, artists, and the staff.
Working within our existing layout: The theater’s key functions have developed organically over the years rather than within custom, purpose-build spaces. Backstage spaces for dressing rooms, audio, lighting, props, audience services, and much more, are overburdened, not efficient, and don’t adequately support the current needs of delivering high quality theater.
Ensuring the comfort of audiences, artists, and staff: As our audiences well know, there are not enough restrooms nor are there gender neutral facilities at the Delacorte. Backstage air-conditioning units have reached the end of their natural life, resulting in uncomfortable work ennvironments during weeks of summer heat.
Protecting against exposure to the elements: As an outdoor venue, the Delacorte has withstood blizzards, super storms, and extreme heat during its 56 years. Water and mud continue to be concerns for artists and crew during the season, while flooding in areas under the stage and under the audience risers risk valuable equipment.
BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group has been selected as the Delacorte’s architect for their experience in designing cultural and public spaces with an eye for preservation, equity, and environmental context – with projects like the Smithsonian Institution South Campus Master Plan on the National Mall in D.C.; the World War II Tirpitz Museum in Denmark; the 2016 Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion in London; and the BIG U in lower Manhattan, among many others.
Create a stable and viable venue that will ensure Free Shakespeare in the Park for future generations.
Expand access to free theater each season; streamlined operations and new efficiencies would allow us to add more free performances into each season and to expand both Free Shakespeare in the Park and our acclaimed Public Works program. Public Works engages community from all five boroughs, like the Brownsville Recreation Center, Dreamyard, and The Fortune Society among others, to perform on the Delacorte stage alongside professional artists. We could also add free matinees for school groups.
An open-air theater that is up-to-date, welcoming, and comfortable for all; with full accessibility access, expanded bathroom facilities, and custom-built backstage spaces for dressing rooms, equipment rooms, storage spaces, audience services, rehearsal space, and improved lighting and sound technology.
Presently, there are no conceptual designs as we are still in the early planning stage. More news on concept and timeline will be shared as the planning takes shape and is announced.
Conceived by founder Joseph Papp as a way to make great theater accessible to all, the Delacorte Theater officially opened in Central Park on June 18, 1962, with THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, directed by Papp and Gladys Vaughan and featuring George C. Scott as Shylock. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was followed that summer by a production of THE TEMPEST, directed by Gerald Freedman and featuring Paul Stevens as Prospero and James Earl Jones as Caliban. The first Delacorte summer season concluded with KING LEAR, directed by Papp and Vaughan and featuring Frank Silvera as Lear.
In celebration of five extraordinary years of Public Works, The Public Theater initiative that invites communities across New York to create ambitious works of participatory theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park this past summer presented a re-imagining of Public Works’ 2016 musical adaptation of TWELFTH NIGHT for a full five-week run. Prior to that extended run, Public Works capped off the Delacorte summer season each September with the most joyous display of theater bringing the people of New York together. Public Works is now a national and international initiative rooted in the Public’s core value of inclusion.