Central Park's Delacorte Theater, the longtime home of Shakespeare In The Park, is officially getting a makeover after the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans this week for the revitalization, with construction set to start in the fall of 2022.
In December, Gothamist reported that after delays caused by the pandemic, The Public Theater was finally ready to move forward with renovations to the iconic outdoor performance space. After various community boards neighboring Central Park were presented with the plans, the Landmarks Preservation Commission gave the green-light.
“The Delacorte’s founding mission was about providing free Shakespeare to all, a vision we have carried on for 60 years,” Patrick Willingham, executive director of The Public Theater, said in a statement. “This design will ensure that the theater is fully able to live up to its founding principles, with intelligent design enhancements that will create more access for audiences, staff, cast members, and people with disabilities. This is what the future of investing in theatrical spaces is all about: creating environments where everyone feels welcome, comfortable, and inspired.”
Rosalind Barbour, the Public Theater's administrative chief of staff, told Gothamist that the theater presented the proposed renovation plan for approval on Tuesday.
"We came to that meeting with five resolutions in support of the design from the community boards that surround Central Park, and having had positive conversations with many conservancy groups," she said. "And we're very happy to say that the Landmarks Commission approved the proposal."
A highlight of that Landmarks Commission meeting was testimony from none other than actor Sam Waterston, a.k.a. Law & Order's District Attorney Jack McCoy. Waterston, who has been named a "Living Landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, talked about how he got his first speaking part on a New York stage at the Delacorte one year after it opened.
"The Delacorte has been a big part of my life: I met my wife-to-be as I was rehearsing there to play Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, which led some 32 years later to our daughter Elizabeth, who is playing Hero in another production of the same play in the same theater in the park with me as her father, Leonato," he said.
"It's a true communal, thoroughly-urban, joint venture, a key part of our common culture, there's nothing like it," he said. "That's the Delacorte, a place for magic in a magic setting overlooked by Belvedere Castle, discreetly tucked into Vaux and Olmstead's grand Central Park design. At the end of 60 years, it needs renovation, preservation, reinvigoration, and fulfillment of Joe Papp's original vision: to be made truly and equitably accessible to all, and to be made more weather-resilient in the face of a changing climate."
The Delacorte, which was originally built in 1962, has only undergone occasional renovations since then (the most recent upgrades were made in 1999), and has shown signs of wear-and-tear in recent years.
The overhaul of the theater was originally announced in 2018. At the time, it was estimated to cost $110 million, and was supposed to start in 2020 and be finished by 2022. During the pandemic, the Public Theater reassessed what needed to be done to ensure the theater wouldn't be closed during the summer season.
As a result, there will not be any drastic changes to the building, though the front exterior will get redone to be canted slightly outward. The new upgrades will prioritize modernizing back-of-house theatrical operations and increasing access for people living with disabilities. The seating will be replaced to increase audience comfort, and there will be improved lighting and new decking material to account for storms.
Barbour said it was particularly important to upgrade the theater's infrastructure because "our mission is to make performances available for free to the people of the city of New York at the same level and quality that they might pay several hundred dollars to see on Broadway, and that requires continued investment."
She added that improving the overall aesthetic of the building was also important: "We know that several thousand people come to see Shakespeare In The Park every summer, but we also know that millions of people visit Central Park every year," she said. "So even if you're just a passerby who is seeing the Delacorte as you're on your way to the Great Lawn, we want to make sure it's a great visual experience to everyone in the park."
The project is now estimated to cost $77 million, with $41 million contributed by the offices of the mayor, City Council and Manhattan borough president, another $1 million from the state budget (allocated by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell) and the rest privately raised.
Barbour added that regardless of the construction timeline, they expect Shakespeare in the Park programming will continue in the summer of 2023 "no matter what."
"Our hope is to perform Shakespeare In The Park this summer 2022, and then come back and have a 2023 season as well," she said. "So our guiding principle is really to disrupt Shakespeare In The Park as little as possible ... It felt crushing to be closed for one summer [during the pandemic] ... So the idea of being closed again for a prolonged period is something where we just can't imagine, so we're really trying to avoid it as much as possible."