Tammy Shell

Stars like Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington have performed in past productions.

Jess McHugh
May 18, 2017

It's almost summer in New York City, and that means ice cream, fresh citrus cocktails, flying cockroaches, and — of course — the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park.

Now entering its 61st season at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, the Public Theater program will be staging “Julius Caesar” from May 23-June 18, and “Midsummer Night's Dream” from July 11-August 13.

“New York City’s ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ is a must-see tradition for visitors and locals each summer,” Chris Heywood, senior vice president of global communications for NYC & Company, told Travel + Leisure. “This free event in iconic Central Park is a great way to see Broadway talent for less and enjoy what is arguably the best time of year to be outdoors in the city.”

A New York City tradition

The program has a long history of showcasing burgeoning acting talent, often before they’ve become household names.

Denzel Washington, Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Kline, and Rosario Dawson have all participated in the program. Even Meryl Streep graced the Delacorte stage in 1978 for a production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Meryl Streep is pictured rehearsing for "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1978.
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Kevin Kline played Richard III in 1983.

Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Rosario Dawson and Oscar Isaac shared a moment during open rehearsal in 2005.
Photo by Jemal Countess/WireImage

Famed theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp started the program in 1954 with the goal of bringing Shakespeare's works to a broader public, including people who couldn't afford to buy Broadway tickets. Papp staged the first production — “Julius Caesar” — in 1956 in East River Park, according to the New York City Parks Department.

After a legal fight, Papp transferred his company to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in the 1960s. Some of the productions that have started as public theater projects have been later transferred to Broadway and even won Tony Awards, including a 1980 production of “Pirates of Penzance” with Kevin Kline.

How to get free tickets

To score free tickets, theatergoers have four options.

1. Enter the daily digital lottery through the TodayTix app (which is also good for seeing sales for Broadway and off-Broadway shows). You must enter between 12 a.m. and 12 p.m. for a chance to get tickets for that night's show.

2. Wake up early — really early — and line up outside Delacorte Theater, in Central Park at around 80th Street next to the Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle. Tickets are distributed first come, first serve — 2 to each person in line — at noon, but the line will start as soon as the park opens: At 6 a.m. There are separate lines for seniors and theatergoers with disabilities.

3. Residents of the outer boroughs can find details for free vouchers on the the company’s website.

4. Enter the in-person lottery at the Public Theater, downtown at Lafayette Street and Astor Place. You can sign up at 11 a.m., and winners are drawn at noon.

And if you're absolutely set on attending and don't want to leave getting tickets to chance, both visitors and residents in New York City can get tickets in advance by making a donation online. You can get two reserved seats for a tax-deductible donation of $500.

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