By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
Each summer, as many as 52,000 people queue up under the sun for tickets to New York's cathedral of plein air classical theater, the Delacorte. That's a larger audience than that of all of the city's other outdoor theater companies combined. Unlike the Delacorte, these small troupes can't offer you Liev or Meryl. And they perform in such unlikely venues as an L.E.S. parking lot and the Central Park bridle path. But in terms of theatrical energy, they are major in every way. This season, an expanded roster of outdoor plays means New Yorkers have a larger than normal range of Bard et al. at their fingertips. From Inwood to Bedford-Stuyvesant, free theater is growing and seeking new audiences where most companies don't bother to look.
First, to clear up a lingering misconception: Free doesn't mean amateur. They may lack big stars, seats, and maybe a stage, but these modest outdoor productions strive for at least an Off-Broadway level of quality, and many of them easily exceed that standard. "I prefer to call it box officeless theater," says Stephen Burdman, artistic director of the New York Classical Theatre Company. Earlier this month, the 10-year-old NYCT kicked off its first downtown production with Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, performing outside Castle Clinton in Battery Park. "Our goal has always been to make the classics accessible," says Burdman, "and part of that means bringing them to different neighborhoods." NYCT, which drew a combined audience of 7,500 last year, plans to make the downtown engagement a permanent part of its annual repertoire, which already consists of two Central Park productions each summer.
For neighborhoods where theater is scarce and classical theater is a two-headed unicorn, July brings a series of traveling productions from the CityParks Theater program, a brand-new initiative of the City Parks Foundation, which is best known for producing SummerStage. This season's itinerary, which began last week, includes stops in Sunset Park, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick. The productions, including Macbeth and As You Like It, will be performed by the Classical Theatre of Harlem and Communicable Arts. Bring thy lawn chair and thy cooler, but as for money, keep it in thy purse.
Why the sudden upswing in free theater? As with any art form, nothing is possible without money, and this summer the cash is flowing stronger than usual. Producing an outdoor play in New York can cost as little as $1,200 and reach as much as $8,000, depending on the company. (The average four-week Delacorte production, by comparison, costs about $1.4 million.) Since no box office equals no revenue, most outdoor troupes subsist entirely on private donations and the occasional grant. Even a minor windfall can make the difference between survival and death. This year, NYCT received an impressive $25,000 grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Council to produce free plays downtown over a three-year period. Mary Stuart, which was the first installment of the project, was originally intended to be performed in the stately lobby of the Cunard Building, at 25 Broadway, but construction activity by the MTA nixed that. Thanks to the LMDC money, NYCT plans to mount a play there next year.
Scoring a major corporate sponsorship doesn't hurt either. Time Warner is picking up the entire tab for the CityParks Theater program, covering everything from sound and lighting equipment to technical staff for each venue. The foundation declined to specify the amount Time Warner is donating, but noted that as a private, nonprofit organization, it wouldn't have been able to finance the project on its own. Plans are to make CityParks Theater an annual summer event, contingent on continued corporate funding.
If money is every outdoor theater company's first concern, the sheer unpredictability of the city is a close runner-up. Sirens, car alarms, and thundershowers are common disruptions. A pair of obstinate sunbathers can ruin a director's perfect blocking, while aggressive insects have been known to attack actors mid-performance. It can get weirder. Hamilton Clancy, who has produced Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot for the past five of the group's 14 seasons, experienced a different sort of interruption while rehearsing in the troupe's performance "space" (the parking lot at Ludlow and Broome streets) last year. "We were going through a scene that required a sword fight," Clancy recalls, "and out of nowhere a police officer stops us and says we need to have a permit to do that. So I asked why and he said that having a weapon in public requires a special permit from the city."
A different concern faces traveling troupes that frequent several parks over the course of a single summeravoiding the city's innumerable festivities. "We once had samba music playing through most of Hamlet," says Tim Erickson, artistic director of the eight-year-old Boomerang Theatre Company. "Another summer, our production of Much Ado About Nothing in Prospect Park competed with the Caribbean Day parade."
Even more irritating can be the short attention spans and loud mouths of children, but here is where New York's outdoor companies differ from much of the city's serious theater world. Both NYCT and CityParks are offering free children's workshops as part of their new summer programs, and children are more than welcome to stay on and watch the day's performances. Free theater and kids simply go together. In fact, the first outdoor theater performances in Central Park were children's plays in the early 1920s, according to the New York City Parks Department.