Shakespeare in the Park Canceled for the First Time in Almost Six Decades

Joan Marcus
The Public Works production of 'As You Like It'

A beloved rite of every New York summer since 1962, The Public Theater's free season this year was to have included 'Richard II' and 'As You Like It.'

Every year since 1962 when George C. Scott and James Earl Jones starred in The Merchant of Venice at the newly constructed Delacorte Theater, free Shakespeare stagings in Central Park have been one of the great democratic cultural pleasures of summer in New York City. But for the first time this year, The Public Theater has been forced to cancel its season.

The Public confirmed today that given ongoing restrictions stemming from the novel coronavirus shutdown, its planned upcoming Shakespeare in the Park productions of Richard II and As You Like It would not be moving forward.

"Every summer for the last 58 years we have reveled in gathering under the stars at the magical Delacorte Theater for Free Shakespeare in the Park," says the Public in a statement released Friday. "We have come together as strangers, visitors and fellow New Yorkers, as audiences and artists, and we get a glimpse of what a unified city could look like. But this year is different. This year, we must stand together in keeping our city and each other safe."

"This is a time of immense shared loss, throughout our city and throughout the world," continues the statement. "The Public will bear financial losses, reductions in our staffing, and most heartbreakingly, the loss of our ability to gather and share stories together. While our stages will remain dark, our commitment to our mission will burn brighter than ever. Our promise to you is that we will keep working tirelessly to bring you glorious work by our incredible artists."

Richard II was to be directed by Saheem Ali and run May 19-June 21, while As You Like It was a return engagement of the musical adaptation by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery. Previously seen in a brief 2017 run at the Delacorte as part of the Public Works program, dedicated to bringing together diverse communities from across New York City in the theater-making process, that production was scheduled for July 14-Aug. 8.

One of the city's leading off-Broadway institutions, the Public ceased performances at its multistage downtown venue March 12, the same day Broadway implemented a blanket shutdown in response to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's mandate to avoid large gatherings. Shows at the Public initially were suspended through April 12. Today's announcement extended that blackout through Aug. 31, including Erika Dickerson-Despenza's Cullud Wattah and all performances at cabaret venue Joe's Pub.

Given the economic circumstances, the Public will furlough 70 percent of its full-time staff, while senior leadership will take significant pay cuts to bolster the institution's long-term financial viability. Theater lovers wishing to make a donation to the Public can do so here.