Back in 2018, it was announced that The Public Theater was planning to do a major overhaul of Central Park's Delacorte Theater. Better known as the home for Shakespeare in the Park, the Delacorte was built in 1962 and has only undergone occasional renovations since then (the most recent upgrades were made in 1999), and was starting to show signs of wear and tear. The $110 million project was supposed to start in 2020 and be finished by 2022, but the pandemic disrupted any chance of that happening. So today, The Public is announcing the latest iteration of the project, which they hope will be approved for construction starting in the fall of 2022.
"The theater has outlasted its current facility in almost every measurable way," they say in a press release. "The renovation of The Delacorte is not optional: the deteriorating structure is in dire need of rebuilding to provide upgraded and more comfortable conditions for staff, artists and audiences alike. It lacks modern back-of-house theatrical operations and does not ensure equitable access for those living with disabilities."
Gothamist reviewed a draft of the proposal, which will be presented over the next six weeks to the five community boards neighboring Central Park starting on Wednesday night (those are CB 5, 7, 8, 10, and 11), and then reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Based on the redone plans, it appears there will not be any huge, glaring changes to the building, though the exterior will get redone to be canted slightly outward, as can be seen in the rendering up above.
Rosalind Barbour, the Public Theater's administrative chief of staff, explained that during the pandemic, they decided to retool their initial plans and reassess whether they needed to construct a totally new building.
"Like most organizations, the pandemic was a time for some reflection and to really think about what the city needed from us as we emerged from a time when we were unable to produce live theater," she told Gothamist. "We were able to determine a renovation of the existing facility was feasible. After being dark in 2020, it just felt like what we needed to do was find a way to be able to accomplish as many of our core goals for our project as possible while losing as few performances as possible. The idea of a prolonged construction period just didn't feel like what the city needed from us moving forward."
The bulk of the changes are meant to increase accessibility for audiences and stage access for artists living with disabilities; the seating will also be replaced to increase audience comfort. It's expected to still hold around the same amount of seats as now (1,872), but there will be more wheelchair accessible locations.
"This renovation will make Delacorte much more hospitable to folks with disabilities and it will also improve the experience of our audiences, artists and staff," Barbour said.
While the layout will be largely the same—as one spokesperson for The Public put it, they wanted to retain the "real campy, 'outdoor theater' spirit"—there is new decking material to account for storms, improved lighting (existing theatrical lighting towers with be replaced with safer, more efficient lighting towers), and also some back-of-house upgrades to make it more comfy for performers and usable for staff to load in, load out and change between productions.
The Public is also in conversations with the Parks Department about another much-needed upgrade: how to improve and expand the comfort stations which are used as the theater’s restrooms during performances.
The project is expected to now cost $77 million, with $41 million contributed by the Mayor, City Council and Manhattan Borough President and the rest privately raised. Pending approvals, work is anticipated to start in the fall of 2022, which is a key part of their plan.
"My sense is that what's beloved about the space is the free Shakespeare in the Park, that's the thing people care about the most," Barbour said. "It is our intent as much as possible to reduce our impact on the ability to produce there, that's part of the motivation of having this be a renovation of an existing facility instead of a new building. We really want to ensure that free Shakespeare in the Park is happening."
Even if the renovations do run over into the summer of 2023 and the theater has to go dark for a season, Shakespeare in the Park programming will continue "no matter what," potentially at alternate venues throughout the city.
"We were so glad we were able to be among the first entities that could resume live performance art at scale, and it was so clear to us that venues like the Delacorte have such an important role to play not just in the cultural lives of New Yorkers, but also after social isolation, they are places of healing and collective joy," Barbour added. "We heard that loud and clear from people who visited the Delacorte this summer, and it deepens our interest in ensuring the Delacorte will be around 50 more years in the future. This renovation will make this possible."