Revitalizing the Delacorte Theater, Central Park


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.

"A Restoration for Shakespeare's Home in Central Park" - The New York Times

Join in on this journey. Stay updated with the latest news and developments, and learn how you can be involved.

WHERE WE ARE TODAY

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.

EXISTING CHALLENGES INCLUDE

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.

MEET THE ARCHITECT

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.

INITIAL PRIORITIES

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.

CONCEPT & TIMELINE

Presently, there are no conceptual designs as we are still in the early planning stage. We are, though, working towards the fall of 2020 to begin any construction. More news on concept and timeline will be shared as the planning takes shape and is announced.  

CITY LEADERS, LONGTIME FRIENDS & SUPPORTERS

Going to Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater is one of my favorite things about being a New Yorker, and the best thing about it – the most truly New York thing about it – is that it’s free and open to all. We’re thrilled to provide funding for the renovation of the Delacorte Theater, which will improve audience access, expand the slate of annual programming, and extend the theater’s season 

- Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen

The Public Theater is a cornerstone of the New York City cultural scene, beloved as much for the quality of the art it produces as for the values of equity and access to culture it promotes and embodies. The Council has been proud to support The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park in the past and looks forward to a bright future full of new possibilities as The Public reimagines what it could be in the years to come.

- City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

People from all walks of life see parks as essential gathering places for physical and mental well-being, as well as platforms for entertainment, discourse, and creative and cultural expressions. The Public Theater’s use of city parks as stages to present great theater works and programming, provides New Yorkers with priceless experiences. We are thrilled that they are exploring ways to expand on their decades of work by revitalizing the Delacorte Theater, its season and their city-wide programming in our parks. 

- NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver

For over half a century, the Delacorte has represented free and democratic access to compelling theater for all New Yorkers. We are pleased to support the makeover of such a beloved venue – modernizing its amenities, increasing its accessibility, and creating a more welcoming experience for artists and audiences alike. The renovated Delacorte will stand as a symbol of the ideals of openness, inclusion, and equity that The Public Theater has championed since the days of Joe Papp. And it will continue to be a home for that rare combination – a cherished tradition that also remains artistically relevant – for generations of future theatergoers. 

- Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl

For nearly six decades, the Delacorte Theater has provided millions of visitors from around the world with extraordinary theater productions for no cost at all. This new funding will enable the Delacorte Theater to renovate its facilities, expand its free performances, and grow its Public Works program to reach even greater audiences of all backgrounds and abilities. I’m proud to support the Delacorte project and look forward to its progress going forward.

- Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs Jimmy Van Bramer

I have the great privilege of representing all of Central Park in the New York City Council, including the beloved Delacorte, operated by the Public Theater. Summer after summer at the Delacorte, the Public Theater has brought Shakespeare in the Park and so many other inspiring, dramatic performances to all of New York City. And the Public makes this art form truly accessible, both by providing live theater free of charge, and by significantly opening up performances to people with disabilities. I’m so proud to be able to support the Public Theater’s endeavors to reimagine, revitalize, and expand the reach of one of the great treasures of our community and city.

- Council Member Helen Rosenthal (Co-Chair, Manhattan Delegation)

The Delacorte beautifully embodies Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of Central Park as a vital democratic space. The Central Park Conservancy shares The Public Theater’s key values of access and equity. We too believe that great cultural spaces and experiences belong to everyone. Having restored Central Park as a respite from urban life, we’re especially excited to support The Public’s efforts to revitalize this beloved outdoor theater in New York’s most iconic park

- President & CEO of Central Park Conservancy Elizabeth W. Smith

The Public Theater has, for decades, been a careful steward of this City-owned landmark at 425 Lafayette Street. In 1965, it was the first significant individual designation under the City’s new landmark law. Since then, The Public has managed their facilities, places that mean so much to so many New Yorkers, with a remarkable appreciation of their historic significance. We are confident that they will undertake this important project, the revitalization of the Delacorte, with the same level of respect and concern for the structure's unique setting. It is encouraging that the leadership of the Public Theater continues to be faithfully committed to Joe Papp’s enduring mission— to partner with the people of New York City, and to make its cultural institutions, and the works they create, accessible to all. 

- Chair Emerita, New York State Council on the Arts and Chair, Historic Landmarks Preservation Center / NYC Landmarks50+ Alliance  
Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel  

The Delacorte is New York’s heart.  There is no place to match what it does.  There is no audience like a Delacorte audience.  It’s theater at its purest, and New York at its best.  Put Shakespeare — free — together with New Yorkers (of all ages, races, sexes, religions, levels of education, wealth, and achievement).  Add the night, the Park, the stars, and the one and only skyline.  You don’t have to shake it or stir it, it makes magic all by itself. 

- Actor and Trustee Sam Waterston  

The minute I stood on the Delacorte stage for the first time, in the middle of Central Park, in front of 1800 New Yorkers ready to embark on a  Shakespearean journey with me I was hooked. It was, without a doubt, one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. 

- Actor and Trustee Danai Gurira 

The Delacorte Theater is the crown jewel of the American theater. The finest actors have graced her incredible stage. Doing the work of the finest writer that has ever lived, William Shakespeare. Under the direction of some of the finest directors, nearly 1800 of the most diverse, eager, supportive, enthusiastic audience members fill her seats nightly to celebrate the best that American theater has to offer...and all for free. So necessary, so enriching, so rewarding, so beautiful. Delacorte forever. 

- Director and Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson  

There is nothing as life-affirming as singing and dancing under the stars at the Delacorte. You feel like you're deep inside the beating heart of New York, helping pump lifeblood into the entire city via every performance. Keeping the shows free and open to all helps make theater something that belongs to all of us, not just those who can afford a pricey Broadway ticket. Free Shakespeare in the Park truly walks the walk of inclusion, opening its doors to everyone. Having been a part of Public Works at the Delacorte for the past three summers, I've seen firsthand that this theater changes lives, opening hearts and bringing together communities across difference to join together in making magic together onstage. 

- Actor and Composer Shaina Taub 

DreamYard has been in partnership with The Public Theater for several years through its Public Works program which has deeply inspired and uplifted our community and benefited many Bronx residents. Revitalizing the Delacorte Theater so it will last for the next half century will expand The Public’s capacity to serve even more Bronx residents who will participate in the program and advance the City’s commitment to prioritizing capital projects that increase access for New Yorkers across the five boroughs. 

- Jason Duchin, Co-Executive Director of DreamYard

Since 2010, The Fortune Society has had an evolving and rewarding relationship with The Public Theater’s Public Works program which includes dozens of our men and women appearing in a classical play each summer presented at the Delacorte Theater. It is difficult to measure the vast impact on our men and women participating in The Public Theater programs. From personal experience, I see, up-close, people who have been marginalized and/or overlooked gaining the excitement of participating in such a creative venture. Free Shakespeare In The Park is what NYC is all about – and a revitalized Delacorte Theater will thrill hundreds of thousands for decades to come. 

- David Rothenberg, Founder of Fortune Society

ABOUT THE DELACORTE

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.  Since then more than 150 productions have been presented for free at the Delcorte Theater in Central Park. Highlights of past Delacorte productions include Othello in 1964 with James Earl Jones; Hamlet in 1975 with Sam Waterston; The Taming of the Shrew in 1978 with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep; The Pirates of Penzance in 1980 with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt; Henry V in 1984 with Kevin Kline; Much Ado About Nothing in 1988 with Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner; Richard III in 1990 with Denzel Washington; Othello in 1991 with Raul Julia and Christopher Walken; The Tempest in 1995 with Patrick Stewart; The Seagull in 2001 with Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Philip Seymour Hoffman; Mother Courage in 2006 with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline; Macbeth in 2006 with Liev Schreiber; HAIR in 2008 with Jonathan Groff and Will Swenson; Twelfth Night in 2009 with Anne Hathaway; The Merchant of Venice in 2010 with Al Pacino and Lily Rabe; Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods in 2012 with Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, and Donna Murphy; The Comedy of Errors in 2013 with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater; Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2013; King Lear in 2014 with John Lithgow as Lear; with; The Tempest in 2015 with Sam Waterston; an all-female Taming of the Shrew in 2016 with Janet McTeer; and Julius Caesar directed by Oskar Eustis and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Phylicia Rashad in 2017; and most recently in 2018, Chukwudi Iwuji and Corey Stoll appeared in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Othello. 

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. 

Photo of Bjarke Ingels by Jonas Bie
Photos of the Delacorte Theater by Tammy Shell, Steve Brown, and Eric Vitale