I have always had a good time at the Delacorte,” says Stephen Sondheim of the Public Theater’s amphitheater and forum for Shakespeare performances in Central Park. “I love sitting there, seeing the skyline of New York, but the best thing is when dusk turns into night during a performance. It has its own enchantment.”

This summer that violet hour will once again cast its twilit spell, first on Daniel Sullivan’s As You Like It with Lily Rabe and Oliver Platt; and then on Into the Woods, the Sondheim-James Lapine 1987 fairy tale musical starring Amy Adams as the baker’s wife. These sylvan plays could not be a more apt way for the theater to celebrate a half century of bringing people into the groves and greenery of Central Park. But the enchantment has worked both sides of the footlights.

“The Delacorte occupies a central spot in American culture, not just physically but spiritually, for actors and audiences,” says Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater. “The tickets are free, and it’s where American actors stake their claim to theatrical greatness. But the Al Pacinos and Meryl Streeps are paid the same as the New York University graduate acting students. So it feels like the purest expression of theatrical art, not in a highfalutin sense but in its populism.”

Liev Schreiber, who has starred in four Park productions, says, “The Delacorte probably planted the seed in me of trying to be an actor. I saw an Othello there, with Raul Julia, which just took my breath away, and had my first experience of being on that stage in The Tempest, with Patrick Stewart. To be a part of that continuum was thrilling.”

The brainchild of Joseph Papp, the legendary founder of the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park has been a magnet for actors since June 18, 1962, when George C. Scott took to the stage as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Over the years the stellar roster has included Streep, Pacino, James Earl Jones, Sam Waterston, Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman.

The big names come despite the Delacorte’s unique set of acting challenges: having to traverse a vast stage and project for an 1,872-seat theater while fighting the elements, encountering the occasional stagestruck wild creature, and dealing with the ambient noise of impromptu concerts, helicopters, and boom boxes. Sometimes the tendency is to overcompensate. When Kevin Kline costarred with Walken, Streep, and Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ 2001 production of The Seagull at the Delacorte, the actor was so blazingly intense that the director reminded him that the character he was playing, Trigorin, was a writer, not a thespian. “The instincts take over to fill the stage and fill the space… so the sky’s the limit, literally,” Kline said at the time.

 

Kline was something of a Delacorte veteran, having previously triumphed in 1980 in The Pirates of Penzance, which eventually transitioned to Broadway; he was also an established Tony-winning star by then. But the park has forged many a career, such as that of Schreiber who, after The Tempest, went on to scale such Olympian roles as Hamlet, Iago, Henry V, and Macbeth for the Public Theater. And it has also served as a baptism by fire for movie stars wanting to add, UK style, theatrical luster to their résumés, as was the case with Anne Hathaway, who starred as Viola in a 2009 production of Twelfth Night.

Her foray was part of a larger trend of young actors assaying Broadway for guts and glory. The Delacorte is particularly tempting, as its limited engagements don’t demand as big a time commitment as a typical Broadway run. However, the amphitheater does carry the perils of live performance—writ larger because of the outdoor space—that acting skills honed in the intimate medium of film will often not adequately translate to the stage.

“Unlike in movies, it’s a whole-body experience at the Delacorte,” says the Tony Award-winning playwright Daniel Sullivan, who has directed five productions in the Park, including Twelfth Night with Hathaway and The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, which transferred successfully to Broadway. “You have to tell the story in such a completely physical way that you create your own focus,” says Sullivan. “No one’s going to come in for a close-up.”

Hathaway earned warm reviews and has since indicated a strong interest in returning. Schreiber points out, “I’ve always felt that the tools you acquire at the Delacorte serve you in good stead for anything else you may come against as an actor. It has everything: intimacy, size, space, nature, and, best of all, an audience unlike any other.”

A special covenant between actors and audience has always shaped the unique experience of free Shakespeare in the Park. Theatergoers are required to queue in line to claim seats, often for hours in inclement weather, and are consequently heavily invested by the time they enter its portals. “The audience is younger, more diverse, and more generous than in any other theater,” says Eustis. “They’re there to support us, not judge us.”

Even those who enter more skeptically are somewhat disarmed. “I never feel grudging, even on sweltering nights,” says Ben Brantley, chief critic of The New York Times. “You do feel privileged to be there, amid this great democratic spirit, even if it is kind of a bummer production.” Though the critic says he has seen his share of those at the Delacorte, he admits to having been entranced at least by the “magic and serendipity” of the place— like raccoons, their feral eyes glinting in the lights, coming onstage in JoAnne Akalaitis’ production of The Bacchae.

Indeed, it is the collaboration between the actors and the audience in battling the elements that best expresses the strong bonds forged at the Delacorte on any given night. Schreiber recalls how rain interrupted (but never cancelled) performances on several occasions during the run of Henry V, in which he played the title role. “The audience would start stomping their feet for us to continue,” he says. “And the triumphant feeling that we got when we ripped off our mikes and continued in the rain—it sounds miserable, but we felt this sense of camaraderie, this great joy and energy between us. We’re acting in the rain. They’re sitting in the rain. And they just don’t want you to stop. They don’t want to let go. And we didn’t want to either.” As You Like It runs June 5 through 30; Into The Woods runs July 23 through August 25

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