15 Summer Theater Festivals in New York City

NYCSummerFestivalsDuring the summer, New York theater changes radically – thanks to the summer theater festivals. Some are outdoors (the others are air-conditioned.) Even New Yorkers who abandon the city for the summer know of the three most celebrated:

Free Shakespeare in the Park, begun by Joseph Papp in 1962 in the Delacorte Theater which was built for that purpose. This usually has two plays by Shakespeare, but occasionally there will be a Sondheim or other modern classic.

Lincoln Center Festival, which always includes a couple of theater pieces, most often from overseas.

The New York International Fringe Festival, with some 200 plays, musicals and experimental works, half of which seem to be trying to repeat the success of Urinetown, which became a hit on Broadway.

But there are many other theater festivals in New York during the summer – so many that there is arguably more theater to see during the “off season” than during the regular theater season, and it is often cheaper (even free), and frequently cutting-edge. Not all of it is worth seeing, of course, and among the bigger festivals it can be intimidating to choose, although that’s also part of the fun. (Tip: Talk to people on the lines.)

In a departure from what I’ve done in past years (2012 and 2013), I’ve decided this year to offer a general run-down of some of the most established annual festivals, arranged more or less chronologically by the month in which the festival begins. (Several continue through the summer.) Rather than tell you what they are offering this summer, I provide links to their latest schedules, so that you can discover for yourself. It’s a good idea to check out their Twitter feeds as well.


Clubbed Thumb Begun in 1996, this festival has consistently offered three new quality, cutting-edge plays each summer.


Ant Fest Started by Ars Nova (most celebrated recently for originating Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), Ant Fest is a grab-bag of delights. Twitter: @arsnova

The New York Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park  Twitter: @PublicTheaterNY

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity New York’s premiere eco-friendly/socially conscious not-for-profit arts festival. Twitter: @PCTFNYC

River to River Festival  Held in the downtown business district, this festival has only a handful of what can be called strictly theater pieces, but the hybrids are worth exploring. Twitter: @R2RFestival

Ice Factory Festival Twitter: @newohiotheatre


Brick Theater’s Game Play Festival Theater pieces that lie at the intersection of video gaming and performance.  Twitter: @bricktheater 

Hot Festival NYC celebration of queer culture. @HotFestNYC

Lincoln Center Festival Twitter: @LincolnCenter 

New York Musical Theater Festival  Some 300 new musicals have premiered at this festival since 2004, including “Next to Normal,” “Altar Boyz” and “title of show” Twitter: @nymf

East to Edinburgh Festival A preview of American productions that will be presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at 59E59 Theaters. Twitter: @59E59 

Fresh Fruit Festival celebrates LGBT culture. Twitter: @FreshFruitFest

Midtown International Theater Festival Twitter: @NYMITF


New York International Fringe Festival Twitter: @FringeNYC

Dream Up Festival Twitter: @TNCinNYC 





Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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