Sunday, July 25, 2010

Boycott Shakespeare in the Park!

I'm a blogger, not a journalist, but this past week I decided to do a little shoe-leather reporting to see if I, a regular working stiff, could get tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. And the results were disheartening. Consider this the first Mr NYC Investigative Report.

First, some background.

Shakespeare in the Park was the brainchild of Joseph Papp, the legendary founder of the Public Theater here in NYC. The child of immigrants, Papp grew up in dire poverty in Brooklyn and always believed that theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular, could enrich and change the lives of anyone exposed to it. He wanted to democratize theater, bring it the masses, bring it to people who couldn't otherwise afford to go. His vision for the Public Theater was of a place that would discover new playwrights and dramatic voices -- and also be affordable for average people.

In 1957, he started the Shakespeare in the Park festival where the best actors in the world would perform the Bard's plays in the open air at the Delecorte Theater -- and it would be totally free. This meant a welder from Brooklyn, a cab driver from Queens, a garbage collector from Staten Island, a store owner from Manhattan, or a housewife from the Bronx could take their kids to see a Shakespearean play and give them a cultural experience their economic circumstances would otherwise deny them. This was the heart of Papp's vision for Shakespeare in the Park, his driving dream.

Sadly, Papp's vision has fallen into complete disarray. Today, Shakespeare in the Park has become the exact opposite of what he intended -- an elitist, snobby, and expensive experience. It needs to change.

Last year it was announced that Al Pacino would appear in "The Merchant of Venice" at Shakespeare in the Park. I excitedly blogged about going to see it. I had tried and failed the year before to see "Twelfth Night" with Anne Hathaway so I was determined to see this production this year. But first I had to get tickets.

Now there are a few ways to get them: 1) get free tickets at the Delacorte the day of the show; 2) enter an online lottery at midnight on the day of the show; 3) make a $350 donation to the Public Theater.

Option 2 is obviously the least time-consuming, most cost-effective way to get tickets but you're more likely to get into Harvard Medical School with a full scholarship than actually win it. Option 3 is the most direct way but only rich people can afford $350 on theater tickets.

Too whit: I was recently listening to Howard Stern who said on air that some entertainment hot shot he knew in LA was flying in to see the show and had invited Howard to go with him. The fact that some out-of-town hotshot can "donate" $350 for tickets and take fellow hot shots with them is not, I think, what Papp envisioned for Shakespeare in the Park. And every ticket purchased through these "donations" is one less free ticket available to the public.

So, you might say, why not just go to the Delacorte and get the free tickets that are available? Aye, there's the rub.

See, only about half of the tickets for any given show are available at the Delacorte theater. The free tickets that are available are distributed at 1 PM the day of the show (the performance is at 8 PM). And this is where it gets crazy. People literally begin to line up an entire day in advance! The entrance to the Delacorte is at 81st street and Central Park West. Central Park doesn't open until 6 AM. So people literally sleep overnight outside the park. And the line starting at 81st street goes on ... and on ... and on ... and on ... and on ... and on ... and on ... and on ... you get the idea.

This past week I showed up at Central Park West and 81st street around 5 AM. I had gotten up at 3:30 AM and shlepted all the way from Queens to get there at that time. (I would have gotten there earlier but the trains and public transportation run slowly in the middle of the night.) I showed up and had to walk to 89th street to get to the end of the line. As I walked down the line I noticed that most of the people camped out were young and white, looking mostly like students, tourists, or the unemployed. Some of the people were clearly homeless but most of them were the aforementioned.
(Just so you know I wasn't wrong about my observations: the people right ahead of me in the line were tourists from North Carolina. The people right behind me were unemployed educators. So there.)

At 6 AM the park gates opened and the line was herded into the park. Under the supervision of the line enforcers, we all walked down a path where the line stretched back ... and back ... and back ... and back ... Many of the people behind me (and there were lots who arrived after me) were told they had no shot at getting seats and were told to leave. People in my part of the line were told we had a 50/50 chance of getting tickets.
We waited ... and waited ... and waited ... for hour after hour.
Finally, at 12:45 PM, we were told to stand up and get ready for the distribution. The line inched forward slowly. Then, at about 1:20, people in my part of the line were told that no more tickets were available (each person can get two free tickets, hence it's a crap shoot). Needless to say, I was pissed.

And that's when I had the revelation: if you are a regular New Yorker then you are basically denied the chance of seeing the very theater that was created just for you.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm all for the homeless, students, tourists, and the unemployed getting to see Shakespeare in the Park. But it is impossible for ordinary, working New Yorkers, people with families and responsibilities, people who don't have the time or the freedom to camp out overnight, to get tickets and see the plays. Also, people from the outer boroughs like yours truly have a tough time getting into Manhattan at that hour to line up. And I think it's really sleazy that you can actually pay for tickets but that the price is so high that middle class and poor folks -- the very people Joseph Papp wanted to see these shows in the first place -- can't afford them. And why are rich people from out of town able to get tickets at all?

This ticket-distribution system is totally out-of-whack. Joseph Papp's vision is being discarded and the people he envisioned Shakespeare in the Park for are being shafted. Yes, I recognize that students and the homeless and unemployed aren't exactly elitist money grubbers but I hope you get my point: you shouldn't have to be either really rich, really young, or utterly destitute to see the plays.
And the thing that also galls me, and that's as big a part of the problem as anything, is that Shakespeare in the Park has become like a nightclub: just getting in and gawking at famous people is all it seems to be about now. Al Pacino! Anne Hathaway! That guy from Law and Order! That guy from Modern Family! Shakespeare in the Park is no longer about Shakespeare or good drama or the unique experience of watching it in the beauty of Central Park. Instead, it's become an elitist experience, it's become about celebrity and exclusivity -- not theater that can transform lives.

Joseph Papp would be rolling in his grave if he saw what his great creation has become.

If Shakespeare in the Park is really about bringing theater to the masses, then it would stop performing exclusively at the Delecorte and instead present the free plays all over the city -- Prospect Park, Flushing Meadows, Van Cortland Park, etc. -- in barebones productions with real theater actors and not vacationing movie and TV stars. This would be truly be theater for the people, the kind of people that Joseph Papp came from.

How many people would actully show up to see these less glamorous producitons? I don't know. It might expose the fact that maybe people aren't quite as interested in actually seeing Shakespeare as they are in celebrities. But at least it would return Shakespeare in the Park to its original vision and would be appreciated by the people more interested in seeing Shakespeare and good drama than famous people.

So for now I'm boycotting Shakespeare in the Park until the Public Theater changes the ticket distribution system, makes it more sane, and ends these phony "donations". I urge all Mr NYC readers to do the same. Tell your friends! Perhaps we can start a movement to return Shakespeare in the Park to the vision and spirit that Joseph Papp had for it more than half a century ago. We shall see.

1 comment:

  1. It is very disappointing to find out what the event has become. I was born in Manhattan and pretty much raised there and have very very good memories of attending these productions as a child. And even then, each year they began to get more elaborate, exclusive, and elitist. Although I long ago moved out of New York when I visit I attend as many cultural events as possible. This year I had hoped to attend a performance with my children, but see this won't be possible from your and other's experiences at trying to get tickets. And although I don't think tourists should be kept out (:-)) I totally agree that what Papp envisioned--an opportunity for the general public to see live theatre and experience Shakespere--seems to be lost. And you are 150% right when you say it would be fantastic to give lesser/unknown actors a chance to improve their skills by doing plays around New York. British actors spend years perfecting their skills by doing Shakespere and it clearly gives them excellent training. Anyway, thanks again for sharing. KB


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