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 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. Unlike the Epidaurus, it lasted only a few years, but 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 of them monumental, others makeshift. Almost all are free; many (but not all) offer the works of William Shakespeare. These theaters make the city itself part of the show: You haven’t lived until you’ve sat through a rainstorm at The Delacorte in Central Park or the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.
Some examples of such theaters in New York and what they’re presenting this summer:
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
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.
This summer’s two productions:
“Richard III,” now through July 17, starring Danai Gurira in the title role (pictured above with Ali Stroker), directed by Robert O’Hara, with a cast including Heather Alicia Simms, Daniel J. Watts, Matthew August Jeffers and Gregg Mozgala
“As You Like It,” August 10 to September 11. A revival of the pageant-like Public Works production by Shaina Taub (who has since wowed with “Suffs”), that presents both professional actors and community members from across New York.
Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park
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
“Twelfth Night,” through July 29. The Classical Theater of Harlem’s production offers an Afrofuturistic take on Shakespeare’s comedy of crossed lovers, with Kara Young starring as Viola.
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center, which began construction in 1959, houses such New York landmark cultural institutions as New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center Theater, and the Juilliard School of Music, but the 16.3 acre campus also presents outdoor shows every summer for free.
Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City, through August 14, is presenting on ten outdoor stages hundreds of free events — music, comedy, dance, outdoor film, poetry, and theater. I’m most excited about Deaf Broadway’s Sweeney Todd in American Sign Language, on July 31 and Ping Chong and Company’s Inside/Out on August 12.
The cheeky free summer performances begun in 1995 in a parking lot on the Lower East Side, and has kept at it since, although changing management and location. For its 27th season, it’s presenting “The Winter’s Tale,” July 13-23, in the parking lot behind Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, on Norfolk Street between Delancey and Rivington.
Riverside Park’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was unveiled in 1902.
The Hudson Warehouse, a company founded in 2004, began presenting performances there over the summer, with the audience sitting on the stone steps and watching the swordplay on the patio. Now renamed The Hudson Classical Theater Company, it is presenting a production of “Emma” through July 24, and “Macbeth,” July 28 to August 21.
Little Island, a strange 2.4 acre public park placed atop new concrete piles in the Hudson River like so many oversized golf pegs, opened a year ago with a season of eclectic performances in its two outdoor theaters, one called the Amph, the other the Glade.
Their second season offers a calendar of events almost daily through September 30th, both during the daytime hours and at night — not always free, rarely conventional theater, never Shakespeare. But the offerings include the second annual Storytelling Festival, September 7 – 18, again curated by Artists-in-Residence Pigpen Theater Company, and including a debut production by The Moth, a new musical by the theatrical ensemble The Lobbyists entitled “Miss Mitchell,” about Maria Mitchell, a pioneer in American astronomy and education, who discovered a comet named after her, and her complicated relationship with her “binary star” sister Phebe.
These might be the most noticeable outdoor theaters in New York City, but they are far from the only ones. Indeed, no street, park or plaza is safe from becoming an outdoor theater in New York City during the summertime, thanks to such touring companies as Hip to Hip Theater Company, which will perform “Pericles” and “Much To Do About Nothing” in parks, gardens and plazas in four of the five boroughs as well as outside NYC, and Theater for the New City, which will for the 45th time this summer tour parks, playgrounds and closed-off streets throughout the five boroughs, this year from August 6 to September 18 with its new original musical entitled “Teacher! Teacher! or PS I Love You.”