From the Issue: Shakespeare in Line

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We rushed to get the Orientation Issue of The Blue and White to you this week, only to have the print release held up by red tape. But we’ll still be dangling bits of it in front of you for the next few days while we get the issue online. Today: navigating the cutthroat world of Shakespeare in the Park (which runs until September 8th!), by Anna Phillips.

In late June of this year, within several days of each other, The New York Times and the New Yorker both came out with rave reviews of Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Romeo and Juliet.  The water!  The moonlight!  Lauren Ambrose!  Critics squealed in delight, and everyone in the city with a literal interpretation of the printed word immediately made plans to attend.  


Shakespeare in the Park, as one Times reporter put it, “is one of those grand New York traditions that really works well, that everyone loves, like dog walkers or bagels and schmear.”  But it’s a little different in that, unlike paid help or food, it’s free entertainment. 

Free being the key word there.  The theater festival’s publicists made certain to emphasize that point this summer by splashing the city’s subway walls with hot pink advertisements that read “Free Love.” The slogan appealed to a sense of nostalgia for the 1960s, as Romeo and Juliet’s glorification of young lust over practicality melded nicely with the principles of the sexual revolution.  But advertising aside, free theater in New York is too rare to give up.   

Accordingly, getting tickets to the shows tests the limits of patience and fortitude. There’s an array of ways to go about trying to get in, none of which is remotely quick or easy. Having waited in line for 12 hours and spent an entire day trying to avoid crack addicts and street musicians, allow me to lay out some guidelines to aid others in the process. 

Before you go, check the weather report.  The Delacorte Theater is open air, and it’s not unusual for a summer shower or similar technical difficulties to put an end to an evening.  During one of the first performances of the season, audience members had to vacate the theater just as Romeo found his 13-year-old bride lying still in the priest’s basement.   

Barring a tempest, enter the park at 81st Street and Central Park West, then follow the footpath to the Delacorte.  Before you see the theater, you’ll see the line, which will already have formed no matter what time you arrive.  While the Public Theater’s website does say that Central Park opens at 6 a.m., it doesn’t tell you that it’s the best time to show up—which, in a way, is good, because a 6 a.m. arrival is still too late. The first wave of people arrives at around 4 a.m., which is technically illegal.  You’ll see them asleep in line, enveloped in blankets and absent friends or family, which can only be expected by people who wake that early. 

Most people with some experience in the process arrive around 5:30 a.m. These strivers will catch each other’s eyes as they enter the park, recognize a competitor, and suddenly break into a dignity-killing power walk.  I went head to head with a group of middle school girls who saw I was small and female and, not realizing I was the Trojan horse of public theater, underestimated my speed. 

In order to ensure comfort while you wait, bring several large blankets, as well as a book or an iPod.  You should also bring a friend or significant other to fetch coffee and refreshments, since by 10 a.m., the staff of the Public Theater will start to lay down the law.  After 10 a.m., you must commit to the line with all of your being.  You cannot leave the line: If you do, you will forfeit your ticket.  You cannot leave the park: if you wish to purchase food, you must use a delivery service arranged by the theater.  Your friends can visit you in line, but they cannot join you, and they must leave before 12:30 p.m.  If you attempt to jump the line, you will be asked to leave. You are allowed to go to the bathroom.  You’ve entered a system modeled after the gulag. 

At 1 p.m. the Public Theater’s staff—rife with failed actors and soaring egos—will line you up single file and march you toward the theater. Those at the front of the line receive tickets, a few in the middle receive vouchers for tickets, and the rest remain empty-handed.  If you have a voucher, you must come back to the theater shortly before the show and check to see if there are people with tickets who have not claimed their seats. If there are, you can get in.  People with vouchers almost always get in; rejoice if you are among them. 

Following the distribution of tickets, those who received nothing will immediately become frantic.  Taking advantage of your confusion, the staff will form you into a “stand-by” line whose order is not based the time of your arrival. Those in the stand-by line must wait until the show begins at 8 p.m.—another seven hours, after you’ve already waited five—to see if there are empty seats. 

Don’t do it.  Instead, leave the park and return around 5 p.m. to join the stand-by line.  Because each person in line gets two tickets, many people who never stood in line—those whose friends got tickets for them—simply won’t show up.  Even if you join the stand-by line quite late, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting in.  

If you do decide to wait in the stand-by line, however, prepare to find yourself surrounded by the outer boroughs of humanity.  When I stood by, the woman in front of me was engaged in an epic cell phone battle with her no-good boyfriend. (In the course of the call, she fittingly compared him to Othello’s Iago.)  She pulled me into a seven-hour monologue and, I am sad to say, I learned that things would not work out between them before he did. Although the woman clearly dabbled in crack, she did not seem to have any on her. 

Then there was the Mexican family—the father sleeping on the woodchips, the mother adjusting her knee-high leather lace-up boots.  Their fully-grown child, drunk from a paper bag, coaxed cell phone lady into harmonizing with him in several painful duets.  The stand-by line convinces you that you are not crazy; you are just determined where others are weak.  Oh, you are fortune’s fool. 

Shakespeare in the Park succeeds not only because it brings the value of Shakespearean theater to the masses, but also because it gives modern theater-goers a real sense of what it was—what it is—to be a groundling.  Whether you wait five or 12 hours, you’ll likely end the day by reaching the conclusion that capitalism rocks, that you’d have preferred to spend $20 for a ticket, and that the imposition of democracy makes man ugly. 

But to go, or not to go?  There is really no question.  Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until September 8th.


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  1. addendum

    You forgot a couple of crucial points, which I learned after being one of the ones who got there at around 5:00 am to claim my 40th-in-line spot:

    a) If you go on a weekday it is far easier because people have work.

    b) If you go before the play "officially" opens and is reviewed in the Times, it is far easier because enough people actually forget that it's happening to significantly shorten the line.

    c) They rely on people IN the line to monitor the line (kind of) because they can't watch everyone at once and remember everyone. If the girl in front of you is someone with whom you've become pretty tight buddies over the course of the last four hours, and you're kind of a push-over, she'll have no problem abusing your kindness by inviting two of her friends into the line at 11:00 am (thereby increasing her ticket count to 6), knowing full well you won't say anything because you'd feel bad.

    d) They have a separate "handicapped" and "senior citizens" line that forms on the benches that circle the theater itself, the entirety of which gets tickets before the normal line. This means (and this is what irks me most) that you could theoretically show up at FIVE IN THE MORNING, and someone else who showed up at TEN could be miles closer to the stage than you are simply by virtue of the fact that he is over the age of sixty-five.

    How's that for a democratic process?

  2. The Line

    Waiting in line for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park is part of the whole experience, not something to dread. You meet interesting people (last year I chatted to a girl for over an hour and found out she was part of the company of UCB), you spend a whole day surrounded by green (not so common in New York), and if you're short on cash, you can offer one of your two tickets on Craigslist to someone who does not appreciate the line.

  3. camping out at 3am  

    on the last day of romeo and juliet still made me the 50th person to get tickets

  4. DHI  

    Get out of here with that, and get out of here with your Yankees-styled franchise.

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