The Delacorte Theater, the fabled open-air venue in Central Park that serves as home to The Public Theater’s summertime Free Shakespeare in the Park programming, will be treated to a sweeping and much-needed revitalization to remedy myriad issues plaguing the nearly 60-year-old amphitheater. The proposed overhaul, unveiled yesterday by the theater in partnership with the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, was described in a press announcement as being “not optional:”
“The deteriorating structure is in dire need of rebuilding to provide upgraded and more comfortable conditions for staff, artists and audiences alike,” the announcement read. “It lacks modern back-of-house theatrical operations and does not ensure equitable access for those living with disabilities.”
The total cost for revitalizing the 1,800-seat Delacorte, which debuted in 1962 with a production of The Merchant of Venice starring George C. Scott and James Earl Jones, is estimated at $77 million, with $41 million of that being contributed by the Mayor’s Office, New York City Council, and the Manhattan Borough President. The rest of the funding will be privately raised. Pending approvals, work would kick off next fall.
With the plans now made public, a “robust” public approvals process will now commence and involve local community boards, stakeholders, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which will review the proposed revamp early next year.
Ennead Architects is leading the design, a choice that unites the firm with The Public for the third time. Previously, Ennead oversaw the heralded $40 million rehabilitation of the nonprofit arts organization’s downtown flagship location within the LPC-designated Astor Library building at 425 Lafayette Street. That project was completed in 2012. More recently, Ennead led the recent renovation of The Public’s Rehearsal Annex as part of a five-phase master plan established by the theater.
As noted in a press announcement, the continued relationship between The Public and Ennead is “based on shared commitments to creating spaces that center radical welcome and equity.”
“We are proud to continue our work with The Public Theater in the re-envisioning of one of New York’s most prized cultural experiences,” said Stephen P-D Chu, principal at Ennead Architects, in a statement. “The design of the revitalized Delacorte will complement the natural surroundings of Central Park by providing a more welcoming, comfortable and accessible experience for visitors and performers alike, and improving The Public’s ability to continue showcasing revered works of art in one of New York City’s most prominent destinations.”
As detailed by The Public, the list of key proposed design elements is an expansive one with an emphasis on improving front-of-house accessibility and backstage efficiency while preserving the Delacorte’s “current form, footprint, and views within the park” and “protecting the sanctity of the theater in the park experience.” The last time the Delacorte was subject to major capital upgrades was in 1999. Plans to revitalize the theater were first announced in 2018.
Currently, there is only one access point and one row of seating at the Delacorte for people living with disabilities. The proposed revitalization would bring the entire venue up to modern accessibly standards by “making two gates accessible for people who use wheelchairs, adding stage accessibility interventions to make the stage accessible for artists with disabilities, and creating an accessible cross-aisle to provide people who use wheelchairs a more equitable experience of attending performances at The Delacorte,” the announcement explained.
A series of major back-of-the-house upgrades, including new dressing rooms, bigger hallways, and climate-controlled enclosed spaces, would help to streamline operations, including the load-in/load-out processes, and provide a more hospitable environment for cast and crew. Clad in a textured wood facade, the theater’s exterior wall would cant slightly outward to provide a “more dynamic aesthetic experience,” while a covered canopy and widened bluestone pathway will “provide more generous circulation and increased shelter from rain and sun.” While not increased, the seating will be overhauled to “comprise a diverse range of colors both blending with and enhancing the seasonal changes of the surroundings” within Central Park.
What’s more, the proposal calls for replacing the theater’s aging, weather-damaged decking with durable, sustainable products approved by the NYC Parks Department and capable of withstanding the elements, as well as installing new lighting towers with additional safety features. Upgraded drainage systems, improved sprinkler and fire alarms, and fresh exterior and interior signage and wayfinding have all also been proposed. As for the all-important bathroom situation, The Public is “in conversations” with NYC Parks to upgrade and expand the restrooms available to theatergoers within Central Park.
“The Delacorte has always been a palace for the people, where the greatest plays, produced and performed by brilliant American artists are offered up free of charge. The Delacorte embodies the idea that culture belongs to everyone,” said Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, in a statement. “Now this iconic theater will not only be revitalized for the next generation of theatergoers, but in the process will be made more accessible to artists and audiences alike. Where once there were limited opportunities on stage and in the house for people with disabilities and people in wheelchairs, now accessibility will be woven much more broadly into the fabric of the theater. Returning from the pandemic, we are recommitting to a fiercely democratic theater that belongs to all the people.”
The Public, in line with its Anti-Racism & Cultural Transformation Plan, has committed to surpassing city- and state-established minimum requirements for contracting Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) and Locally-based Business Enterprises (LBEs) for the planned revitalization, including at least 40 percent MWBE/LBE subcontracting and 30 percent construction participation from under-resourced communities.
In announcing the overhaul, The Public shared the reactions of numerous city officials and friends, partners, and advocates of the theater. Among them was actor and trustee Sam Waterson, who said: “This magical stroke of genius is almost 60 years old and needs reinvigoration, preservation, renovation, the way 60-year olds very commonly do. It’s so important and so very much within our reach. I’m asking and inviting you, just please, let’s do it. Your kids and grandkids and all the coming generations thank you for your help and will be so very delighted at the result—easier access for everyone, resilience in a changing climate, a great experience made young again. Let’s.”