Putting on outdoor Shakespeare shows in New York City parks this summer is not a breeze

Broadway got official word on Wednesday that shows can resume at theaters in full force on Sept. 14. Until then, the al fresco play’s the thing when it comes to live, in-person productions. 

Free Shakespeare shows gearing up for face-to-face runs this summer around New York City include a modern redo of “Richard III,” a new take on “The Merry Wives of Windsor” set in South Harlem and a version of “King Lear” that uses the happy ending of a 340-year-old adaptation.

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After COVID-19 nixed live presentations last year, members of creative teams behind these three productions are all raring to go and concur that for safety’s sake in an ongoing pandemic the great outdoors lives up to its name.

Ron Cephas Jones as Prospero in a pre-pandemic performance of “The Tempest” by the Theater of Harlem.

Jill Jones

They also all agree that necessary rigorous protocols and precautions means that staging a show, even if it’s under an open sky, is anything but a walk in the park. 

“This is a whole new level of safety for everyone involved. It’s been very complicated and gnarly,” said Saheem Ali, an associate artistic director of the Public Theater, where the production of “Merry Wives” he’s directing at the Delacorte Theatre from July 5 to Aug. 29 has been in development since last November. 

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That was a month before a vaccine was publicly available, and two months before author Jocelyn Bioh (“School Girls’ or The African Mean Girls Play”) wrote her adaptation of Shakespeare’s raucous comedy. Funny business takes serious work.

“We knew then outdoors was safer than indoors,” Ali adds. “We wanted to put all our energies toward it. We’ve worked for months as guidelines and vaccine strategies have evolved. It’s been really hard. The obstacles keep popping up. It’s a bit like whack-a-mole.” 

The coronavirus, of course, is the megamole, and that includes COVID-19 testing regimens, even for those vaccinated, to ensure the health of people in close proximity. “There’s a whole new budget item for someone whose job is only about COVID-19 compliance,” said Ali. Contingency plans to deal with possible positive tests for COVID within the production are being mapped out.

“We’ve been working with all the unions involved. Sometimes their rules overlap and sometimes they don’t,” he adds. “It’s our job to reconcile all of that and create an environment that’s safe for everyone.” 

That includes the audience. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park seats 1,800, but as things stand only 428 are allowed to attend a performance, according to the state’s mandate. “That’s the capacity as of now and they must wear masks,” Ali said on May 4. “It may change.”

He said that free tickets could be distributed via the iconic line or a virtual giveaway may be used: “We have to be ready for anything.”

The same holds for the Classical Theatre of New York, a 22-year-old company known for its outdoor presentations. Their hybrid production of Shakespeare’s original drama and Nahum Tate’s version of “King Lear,” in which the more sinned against than sinning monarch and his true-blue daughter Cordelia survive, runs free in three Manhattan city parks and the MetroTech Commons public space in Brooklyn from June 24 to Aug. 8.

A previous performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” by the Classical Theatre of New York.

Miranda Arden

“There have always been a lot of protocols when you present a show, and COVID-19 has expanded that,” said director Stephen Burdman, who’s delighted by the fact that this production puts 35 people, actors, crew and others, to work.

“We now have to have more room for the actors when they’re together and not performing. They should be further apart.” Since few characters care for each other in the play, he adds, “there’s a certain amount of built-in social distancing.” 

Burdman calls vaccination “the tricky thing. We’re working closely with unions about how testing happens,” he said, “and production members will be tested even if we end up with a fully vaccinated cast and crew.” 

According to Burdman, production members who are 14 days past being fully vaxxed require an antigen test every week. Those who aren’t vaccinated require a PCR test, which determines if you have the virus, three times a week.

“Currently we’re set to begin using a private medical practice along with two COVID-19 mandated safety officers to implement the weekly testing. We’re waiting for a response from Actors’ Equity Association to see if they approve our using free New York COVID testing,” Burdman said on May 7. 

If not, they’re responsible for the full cost of testing the entire company. “That can be thousands of dollars a week,” he said. “It absolutely has increased the budget.”

Ty Jones, producing artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, echoes that sentiment. The company presents “Seize the King,” Will Power’s reimagining of “Richard III,” from July 6-29 at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park.

“We’re pretty resourceful. Our budget is typically roughly $380,000 to $400,000 and we’re going to be increasing it by $100,000 to be able to meet all the protocols around COVID-19,” he said. “It will be our most expensive show by far.” 

Extra staff for COVID-19 compliance, testing, double casting of actors and honeywagon to enable social distancing for actors for the month of July account for the added expenses.

Capacity at the 1,600-seat amphitheater depends, said Jones, on whether the company requires theatergoers to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test or not. In the former scenario 500 people could attend. In the latter, just 200, said Jones.

Ty Jones, as Macbeth, is pictured with the Elisa Monte Dance Ensemble in a 2016 performance of “Macbeth” by the Theater of Harlem.  


Jones is ready for changes in guidelines and rules as they come. He speaks for others when he said: “I’m hopeful that we can get through the entire summer without interruption.”

Beyond theater, the outdoors provides a setting for entertainment from stand-up comedy on rooftops to concerts. 

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On Monday, May 10, a new outside performing arts center built at Lincoln Center, premieres its free Restart Stages series with back-to-back performances by blues and soul singer Martha Redbone and Broadway favorite Norm Lewis.

“It feels like New York is on a comeback, and it’s amazing to be part of it,” said Lewis, who’s chosen the first song he’ll sing with care. “I’m doing ‘Waiting for Life.’ It feels like for the past year we’ve all been doing that.”

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