The term ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ at first applied to performances of Shakespeare’s plays at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, New York. It has since come to refer to outdoor Shakespeare performances generally.
The plays are staged in cities and towns across America in the summer months: wherever one goes there is always an outdoor performance one can attend, particularly in the English speaking world from African to Asian countries, with countless outdoor theatres in the Americas and Europe.
The idea originated in the vision of the New York theatre entrepreneur and stage director, Joseph Papp, in the 1950s, when he decided that Central Park would be a great venue for performances of Shakespeare’s plays. He brought actors from all over America to New York to perform in his theatre in Central Park. Part of his vision was that this should be a kind of people’s theatre – everyone, regardless of their class and economic situation, should have performances of Shakespeare’s plays freely available to them. Entrance was free and the performances became extremely popular. Papp attracted a number of America’s biggest stars and others who would later become stars. Some of the names appearing in Papp’s productions in the Park were George C. Scott; Stacy Keach; Sam Waterston; Richard Dreyfuss, Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen.
It would be impossible to list all the American cities that now have Shakespeare in the Park festivals but it seems that wherever there is an urban park there will be a Shakespeare festival in the summer. Moreover, parks are not the only outdoor venues for these performances.
Theatre companies stage them on beaches and on floating stages in lakes, on mountainsides, on river banks and in sports stadia. There’s even a company in London that stages plays in site-specific locations like a multi-storey carpark and the ruins of a decayed building.
One of the most beautiful settings for outdoor performances of Shakespeare is Sydney’s Bicentennial Park with the backdrop of the opera house and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Another is Maynardville in Cape Town with Table Mountain as a backdrop. At Shakespeare by the Sea in San Pedro, California, the plays take shape with the ocean stretching out behind them.
Shakespeare’s plays can be performed anywhere, and they are.