Smiles of a Summer Night: The Public Theater's 50 Years of Free Drama at Central Park's Delacorte

By Harry Haun
16 Jun 2012

Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Hair is the Delacorte's latest Tony-winning gift to Broadway. Others include The Pirates of Penzance, Two Gentlemen of Verona (which famously, or infamously, won the Best Musical Tony over the original Follies) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Also making the park-to-Main Stem run: On the Town, The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice.

"Al Pacino had not done the park before he did Merchant," Eustis notes. "We went out together to the Delacorte one cold, rainy spring day, and he was, like, 'Oh, I'm not going to be able to go on if it's like this.' As it turned out, Al was not only a trouper, he loved doing it. Over and over, there's something about the elemental nature of the park that is a challenge — but an attractive challenge. Even more, the actors love what the audiences like. It's such a beautifully appreciative audience, precisely because they haven't paid $400 for a ticket. They're there for free, they've waited in line, and they're there to love it!

"I have never had an actor actually complain to me about conditions in the park when they're doing the show. When they're imagining it, they sometimes get scared about it. Then they do it and discover the joy of contending with those elements. This is as true of Meryl Streep as it is of Anne Hathaway."

Eustis would just as soon skip the stories about bugs flying into the mouths of actors in mid-soliloquy and concentrate on the raccoon ruckus. "There has been many a raccoon that has decided to mate at inappropriate moments. Everyone who works at the Delacorte becomes familiar with the sound of raccoons being amorous. It's not a pleasant sound. It does not sound like anybody is giving consent to anything."

What Mrs. Papp loves most about Delacorte audiences is how they respond: "in a way that's not been affected by high ticket prices, which encourages a kind of aloofness. I think it's curious to say this, but the relationship of actors and audiences there are more like that of Shakespeare's day where there's a kind of immediacy and reciprocal understanding. You can hardly find that anywhere else in the theatre.

"In a way, I feel that the Delacorte gave birth to The Public Theater because Joe thought contemporary playwrights could learn a lot from Shakespeare. He liked to ask people, 'OK, what's the first line of Hamlet?' Usually, people didn't know. Well, it's 'Who's there?' That's a good way to start a play, and Shakespeare knew how to do it, so he thought playwrights could learn for being closer to Shakespeare. He used to cite the Royal Shakespeare Company after he visited them in the early '60s and saw classics alongside new works — how they really complemented each other and gave each other new kinds of energy. He had that very strongly in mind when he decided to build a permanent theatre."

View production photos from 50 years of Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte:

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Charlotte Rae and Martin Sheen in Romeo and Juliet, 1968
Photo by George E. Joseph/ŠThe New York Public Library