The first commercial outdoor theater in the United States began performances in New York City in July, 1800. The Theatre at Mount Vernon Gardens is said to have existed two blocks north of City Hall on Leonard Street, which was then the countryside. Of course theater as we know it began outdoors, in amphitheaters such as the 2,500-year-old theater at Epidaurus, Greece, which was designed by the architect Polykleitos the Younger, and is still being used today.
The same can’t be said for The Theatre at Mount Vernon Gardens, which lasted only a few years, although it became the model for many “gardens” offering professional theater, including Vauxhall Gardens.
If such theatrical “gardens” have since moved indoors (i.e. Madison Square Garden), the tradition they began lives on. New York still offers outdoor theaters during the summer months, some more permanent than others — and not all of them offering just Shakespeare. These theaters don’t just make the city itself, and its weather, part of the show: You haven’t lived until you’ve sat through a rainstorm at The Delacorte. And, as a recent article illustrated, “along with the fresh air and sunshine come raccoons and helicopters.” These outdoor shows are also free.
Some examples this summer:
Coriolanus at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
The Bard’s “blistering drama about a general voted into power by a populace hungry for change and the unraveling that follows” will be presented for free by the Public Theater July 16 to August 11.
The Delacorte, a 1,800-seat open-air theater, was built in 1962 for the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park productions, which Joseph Papp began eight years earlier.
The Bacchae at Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park
Bryan Doerries’s adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy is staged for free by the Classical Theatre of Harlem through July 28.
In 2011, the city and a couple of philanthropic foundations turned the old 1960s bandshell in Marcus Garvey Park in East Harlem into the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater
For its 25th season, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot takes place in the parking lot to which it was forced to move in 2015, behind Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center. Its production of Shakespeare’s tragedy is staged for free through July 27.
The Man in the Iron Mask at Riverside Park’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
The Hudson Warehouse production of Alexandre Dumas’s tale of an imprisoned twin is the third of four plays in the “D’Artagnan Romances,” adapted by Susane Lee. It is being presented through July 28, followed by Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor August 1 to 28th.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was unveiled in 1902. The audience sits on the stone steps and watches the swordplay on the patio.
And lets not forget Broadway in Bryant Park concerts, Thursday lunchtimes in July and August.