Special Reports

Summer in New York City Means Free Outdoor Theater

The Hudson Warehouse, which bills itself as “The Other Shakespeare in the Park,” is one of a multitude of companies offering free theater in the city this summer.

Ian Harkins plays Juliet opposite Chris Behan's Romeo in <I>The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)</I>
Ian Harkins plays Juliet opposite Chris Behan’s Romeo in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
(© Hudson Warehouse)

Ian Harkins is about to launch into a historically dubious biography of William Shakespeare in the Hudson Warehouse production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (through June 30) when he is suddenly silenced by the overhead buzzing of an NYPD helicopter. This is one of the many hazards (weather, mosquitoes, lost tourists) of producing theater outdoors. But any real thespian will know how to turn an obstacle into an opportunity and Harkins does not disappoint. He looks to the sky, shrugs his shoulders, and shoots a self-effacing grin at the audience that elicits a burst of laughter.

Complete Works is an irreverent condensation of every Shakespeare play into just 100 minutes, as performed by three actors. It was originally presented by the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Nicholas Martin-Smith, producing artistic director of Hudson Warehouse, who also stars in Complete Works, decided that is was the perfect way to kick off the 10th Anniversary Season. He asked, “What better way to celebrate our tenth anniversary than do all thirty-seven plays in one night?” Susane Lee, Hudson Warehouse’s Assistant Artistic Director, directs this production.

Martin-Smith has presented several full-length Shakespeare plays in the last decade of producing free theater on the North Patio of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park. “I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for about twenty-five years,” Martin-Smith explained. “One day I was walking through the park and I ended up at the foot of the monument. It was a beautiful day. I strolled into the center of the patio, looked up, and realized it was a three-quarter thrust.”

Nicholas Martin-Smith, Ian Harkins, and Chris Behan are men in tights on the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park.
Nicholas Martin-Smith, Ian Harkins, and Chris Behan are men in tights on the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park.
(© Hudson Warehouse)

It is a dramatic setting in which to perform the classics. Completed in 1902, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was commissioned by the state legislature to honor New York’s Civil War veterans. The center of the monument is a 96-foot cylinder of marble and granite, ringed by a Corinthian Colonnade that undoubtedly made a stunning backdrop to the 2006 production of The Bacchae. While the space is set-up as a ¾ thrust, the bulk of the audience sits on the north steps, facing away from the monument and toward a sea of trees (Birnam Wood?). With such a gorgeous outdoor space, who would want a roof?

Indeed, in this marbled O, Martin-Smith feels that he is recapturing some of the magic that existed in the bard’s original Globe Theatre. The nontraditional setup encourages audience involvement rather than just sitting politely and watching. Martin-Smith’s audiences are comprised 21st century groundlings.

He fondly recalls a 2009 performance of The Tempest in which an actor’s shoe accidentally went flying off his foot during some heavy-duty acting. “In the middle of the performance, a four-year-old audience member ran on stage, picked up the shoe, and handed it back to Trinculo,” Martin-Smith recounted. “It was brilliant.”

In presenting free outdoor theater to a diverse audience, Martin-Smith seems to be following in the footsteps of Joseph Papp, the legendary producer who founded Shakespeare in the Park in 1954. What started with Papp, a ragtag group of actors, and a flatbed truck has grown into a world-renowned cultural event that attracts big stars like Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep to the Delacorte Theater every summer. (The New York Public Library claims that the site for the Delacorte was chosen in 1957, when Papp’s truck broke down in roughly that spot near Belvedere Castle.) “It wasn’t an objective of mine to emulate Papp,” Martin-Smith said. “But in retrospect, I look back now, and I recognize his original intention. His original plan was to present free classical theater to the people.”

[Click here to read TheaterMania’s review of Shakespeare in the Park’s current offering, The Comedy of Errors starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater]

Of course, Martin-Smith is quick to remind everyone that you don’t have to wait in line for six hours to get tickets to his performances — you just have to show up. That is true for a growing chorus of troupes that offer free theater in nontraditional spaces during the summer months.

Nicholas Martin-Smith plays Hamlet in <I>The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)</I>.
Nicholas Martin-Smith plays Hamlet in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).
(© Hudson Warehouse)

such company, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, has become the subject of recent controversy since it was revealed that, after 17 years of playing the Municipal Parking Lot on Ludlow Street, the city will begin charging the production company for the spaces they occupy in performance.

“Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is a fixture of New York,” Martin-Smith opines. “It’s going to stay there and they know that. I really feel that they are taking advantage of a New York City treasure.”

Perhaps luckily for the Drilling Company, the producers of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, this issue has become a political football, with mayoral candidate Christine Quinn weighing in on the side of the company by calling on the department of transportation to waive the fee: “We need to recognize the importance of keeping the arts alive for all New Yorkers, not just a lucky few,” Quinn said in a statement. “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot represents the creative spirit that fuels New York City’s innovation, energy, and greatness.” She has enlisted Jonathan Sheffer, an ex-officio member of Lincoln Center’s board of directors, to foot the bill in case the city does not relent.

Echoing Quinn’s sentiment, Martin-Smith asserts that his brand of outdoor theater is a free service to the people of New York. “Theater is essential to being a human being,” Martin explained. “I don’t believe people should have to pay outrageous amounts of money to share in a ritual that goes back tens of thousands of years.”

Here are some of the ways you can get your ritual on, completely gratis, in New York City this summer:

Richard III, 69th Street and Central Park West (through July 14)
The Boomerang Theatre Company brings Shakespeare’s tale of the deformed and Machiavellian king to a part of the park they have dubbed “Boomerang Rock.”

King Lear, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (July 4-28)
Hudson Warehouse offers Shakespeare’s tale of paternal dementia and fraternal ire as their second show of the summer.

The Tempest, Castle Clinton (July 9-August 4)
Lovingly nicknamed “Runaround Shakespeare” by some fans, New York Classical Theatre promises a fun and engaging production of the bard’s tale of shipwrecks and magic that will keep the audience on their feet.

The Taming of the Shrew, The Amphitheater at Riverbank State Park (July 10-August 4)
Pulse Ensemble Theatre presents its 9th annual Harlem Summer Shakespeare, with the bard’s vaguely anti-feminist tale of Petruchio and his courtship of “shrewish” Katherina.

The Shakespeare in the Parking Lot cast of <I>Cymbeline</I>...with light sabres!
The Shakespeare in the Parking Lot cast of Cymbeline…with light sabres!
(© Shakespeare in the Parking Lot)

Cymbeline, Municipal Parking Lot (July 11-27)
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot presents Shakespeare’s problem play about the ancient Britons in rebellion against their Roman overlords, staged as a space opera!

Zapata! Tiger of Morelos, Inwood Hill Park Peninsula (July 17-August 4)
Moose Hall Theatre Company offers a dramatized history of Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest, Various Locations in Queens (July 24-August 18)
Hip to Hip Theatre Company will tour the Borough of Queens with repertory productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest. These guys are old-school wandering players.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, A New Musical, The Delacorte Theater (July 23-August 18)
The original Shakespeare in the Park brings you a new musical based on Shakespeare’s romantic comedy about sexual abstinence and its discontents, from the creators of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers.

Richard III, Municipal Parking Lot (August 1-17)
Since the remains of the actual Richard were dug up in a Leicester car park earlier this year, this production from Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has been a foregone conclusion.

The Three Musketeers, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (August 1-25)
Nicholas Martin-Smith directs Susane Lee’s new adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ action-adventure novel about swashbuckling Frenchmen. Expect much swordplay.

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