New York Classical Theatre rarely lets the audience stay in one place for too long. Lovingly known by some theater fans as "runaround Shakespeare," NYCT is celebrating 15 years of free interactive productions of Shakespeare and others. (Last year they did Chekhov's The Seagull.) In that time, they've led theatergoers through the great parks of New York City. The image of hundreds of audience members charging over the hills of Agincourt (Governor's Island) in NYCT's 2011 production of Henry V has to be one of the most indelible in the tradition of free Shakespeare in the park. This year's show is As You Like It, Shakespeare's pastoral comedy of love in exile. "It's a celebratory play," said Artistic Director Stephen Burdman.
Considering his penchant for movement, I wasn't surprised that our entire interview was conducted on our feet. Burdman took me on a tour of his "theater," which is actually the area around the pool near the 103rd street entrance at Central Park West. As You Like It will play this venue through June 22 before moving on to Prospect Park (June 24-29) and Battery Park (July 1-27). All of these productions are 100 percent free and accessible to the public.
"This is Olivia's Court," he motioned toward a garden area, making reference to the central character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. "This will forever be King Lear's heath," he said as we trudged up a grassy knoll. Burdman has been staging Shakespeare in this part of Central Park since 2000, so the backdrops of each of his productions dot the landscape. "This is Dunsinane Hill," he pointed to a yonder hill that was, indeed, quite evocative of Macbeth. He knows every inch of this landscape, the same way a good theater manager would know every crack and scratch on the stage.
Burdman spends exactly $0 on sets, meaning that he relies entirely on the Park and a few well-placed props to convey the story's time and place. "I've got these lovely scenic designers: Olmstead and Vaux," he joked, referencing Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the two architects who designed much of Central Park in the 19th century. With so many varied and beautiful landscapes, it would feel like a waste to stay in one place, so he moves the audience for almost every scene.
Burdman has a fundamental philosophy behind his athletic directorial approach: "The harder the audience works, the greater emotional response they have to the play." So as the audience relocates from scene to scene, they drive the plot forward with their movement. He calls his method of staging "panoramic theater" since it offers several perspectives on the same location. It's a type of theater that literally envelops you and takes you on a journey with it, not entirely dissimilar to popular downtown immersive productions like Here Lies Love and Sleep No More. "But we've been doing it a lot longer than anybody else," Burdman was quick to remind me.
Despite the financial turbulence of the last six years, Burdman has miraculously been able to refine his approach and grow the company. All of the actors and production staff are paid. Since he spends no money on sets, Burdman can afford to be more lavish with the costume design. The company has a growing collection of corsets and swords, kept in a 100-square-foot storage unit donated by Manhattan Mini Storage. "We have one of the largest armories in the city outside of the Metropolitan Opera," he boasted, going on to explain that he buys only the sturdiest blades so he can use them year after year. "We do what needs to get done to get the highest quality Shakespeare possible."
While New York Classical Theatre may seem relatively young compared with Shakespeare in the Park, the original free summer Shakespeare franchise started by Joseph Papp in 1954, it is now a firmly rooted cultural institution of the city. New York is full of creative companies doing their own productions, however, feeding the city's insatiable craving for theater under the stars. Check below for a list of several of them.
Much Ado About Nothing, The Delacorte Theater (June 3-July 6)
The original Shakespeare in the Park kicks off the summer with this comedy of sharp-tongued love in Sicily starring Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe.
The Tempest, Inwood Hill Park (June 4-21)
Moose Hall Theatre Company brings Shakespeare's final play of magic and exile to the northernmost tip of Manhattan.
King John, Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument (June 5-29)
Shakespeare's history play about the 13th century King of England is the first offering of the season from Hudson Warehouse, which produces three shows every summer at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, 69th Street and Central Park West (June 21-July 20)
Shakespeare's ever-popular magical comedy comes to "Boomerang Rock" in this production by The Boomerang Theatre Company.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument (July 3-27)
Hudson Warehouse takes on Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners and cucumber sandwiches.
Twelfth Night, Municipal Parking Lot (July 10-26)
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot returns to the car park at the corner of Ludlow and Broome for Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity and servants behaving badly.
Rhinoceros, Inwood Hill Park (July 16-August 2)
Moose Hall Theatre Company offers a touch of the absurd this July with Eugene Ionesco's classic about a small town in which everyone turns into a rhino.
Much Ado About Nothing, Carroll Park (July 23-August 10)
Smith Street Stage celebrates five years of bringing the Bard to Brooklyn with this sparkling comedy.
Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline, various locations in Queens (July 23-August 17)
Wandering players of the Borough of Queens, The Hip to Hip Theatre Company takes these repertory productions (one comedy, one tragedy) on the road.
Romeo & Juliet, The Amphitheater at Riverbank State Park (July 24-August 17)
Pulse Ensemble Theatre celebrates their 10th year of Harlem Summer Shakespeare with the Bard's tale of star-crossed love in Verona. This is the original west side story.
Othello, Municipal Parking Lot (July 31-August 16)
The moor of Venice takes up residency on the Lower East Side for August.
The Winter's Tale, Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument (July 31-August 24)
Perfect for the blistering month of August, this tale of treachery in Bohemia has more twists than your average episode of Game of Thrones.
Love's Labour's Lost, Bryant Park (August 15-30)
What better place to tell Shakespeare's comedy of young men swearing off women to focus on their studies than a park attached to a library? This is the second production of the summer for Boomerang Theatre Company.