Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
Why waiting outdoors for hours for free tickets is always on my family's calendar
At 6 a.m. on a recent July morning by Central Park's Delacorte Theater, a woman smiled as my family took our place behind her in line to wait for free tickets to Richard III, the first show of The Public Theater's 60th Shakespeare in the Park season. Never mind that tickets wouldn't be distributed for another six hours. We were just ecstatic that now, after two summers of our discontent due to you-know-what, it was back. Our beloved line was back!
I counted… only eight people ahead of us. Not bad. A few minutes later, a man plopped down behind us in one of those chairs you wear as a backpack, greeting me with a grin so giddy it was practically cartoonish, but I understood. All of us waiting did.
In 2020, Broadway had already been shut down for a month when The Public Theater announced it was canceling its summer season. Everyone has a "that's when it got real for me" moment from the early pandemic days, and that was mine. Happily, Shakespeare in the Park returned last summer with a delightful production of Merry Wives, but tickets were only available via lottery online, not in line.
That digital ticket option wasn't new: it had been around since 2015. I understand why some people prefer it, but my family and I always go for the in-person option. In fact, my kids will tell you that sometimes they enjoy this show before the show even more than the show itself.
When Shakespeare wrote, "But soft, methinks I scent the morning air," he probably wasn't picturing NYC in summer. Yet Central Park at dawn is truly magical. The dewy air is crisp and lush. The morning light weaves through the trees and down the winding path where the folks in line lay down blankets and chairs and settle in. The birds reward early risers with a melody meant just for us. Cue Sky Masterson singing "My Time of Day."
Once we're cozy in our spot, it's time for dog watching, arguably my biggest Fido fix of the year. Canines are allowed off leash in Central Park before 9 a.m., so watch out for your breakfast—last time we were waiting, we saw a neighbor's sandwich get snatched!
Every hour or two, my kids like to take a walk to see where the line is and report back: "past the garbage can, around the corner to the bridge." We've been doing the line since they were little; they're 19 and 14 now. I brace myself for rejection every year but, so far, they continue to be enthusiastic about joining me and my husband, despite the early wake-up call.
My daughter was only two-months old her first time—we waited for tickets to Hair when she had very little hair herself. As a newborn, she was quite the attraction, garnering lots of "oohs" and "aahs." But a few years later, she was more than just a cute face; she was of use to us. Once your kids turn 5, they can get tickets! With each of us allotted two, that means four extra tickets to give to family and friends.
We've spent several Father's Days and August birthdays in the line, armed with Scrabble and other board games. While smartphones have been a game changer in terms of how we pass the time (to think—my husband used to bring a newspaper!), we do our best to ditch the devices and enjoy the park as a family.
The free tickets give us a license to splurge on food. We look forward to ordering breakfast from Andy's Deli. It's exciting to see the delivery guy bike up to the line and call our name, which often results in other folks asking for menus. We're easy to find because we're always toward the front. Latecomers have a tougher job explaining where they are.
Post-bacon, egg and cheese, it's nap time. After years of trying out a variety of blankets and chairs, we've settled on a comforter and a couple of throw pillows. I still scour the line for other people's seating choices, which range from sitting on a newspaper to pitching a pop-up tent. One year, my husband and I left the kids with grandma and schlepped an air mattress for the 20-hour wait for tickets to see Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. Since the park doesn't open until 6 a.m., we had to spend the night camped out on Central Park West. It rained a bit, but there are worse things than an overnight park date.
Another staple is the musician we call Sax Guy, who moves down the line blowing his horn for tips. I appreciate his efforts to play something relevant to the production. The summer The Public mounted Into the Woods in Central Park, Sax Guy played Sondheim selections. I wonder how he spent the last couple of summers with no line to serenade. We were relieved to see him return this year.
When my out-of-town friends visit, I urge them to queue up if they want a quintessential New York experience. The camaraderie is real. The year my daughter turned 8, she spent her whole time in line with a group of teenagers who were singing Hamilton and adopted her as one of their own. That was also the summer she learned about Snapchat.
Once we get our tickets, we go home to shower and change. I love returning and trying to spot the people we hung out with in line, now decked out in snazzy evening wear (or, at least, not sweats). It's fun to catch a wave and a smile across the theatre—even if they were next to us in line, ticket distribution is random. Many times, I've ended up in the back row and spied the party that was behind us in line sitting front and center. The reverse has also been true, of course.
For a long time, I was picky about doling out our extra tickets—our guests had to deserve it. They were disqualified if they told me I was nuts to do the line. I've softened over time; we all have our thing. Some people plunge into the ocean in January for fun. Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte is my happy place.
And I think everyone should try it at least once—both the line and the show. The idyllic backdrop of lush trees and Belvedere Castle. The shift that happens as the sky slowly fades to black during Act I and the stage lights come up. The moon rising during Act II. With nature's underscoring of raccoons, birds, frogs, cicadas and sometimes thunder, no two experiences are alike.
As a TDF employee, I no longer need to wait in line for Shakespeare in the Park (humblebrag). I get tickets for assisting with our open captioned performances. But to skip my beloved line? Unthinkable! It just means that I see every show twice. As Celia says in As You Like It (Shakespeare in the Park's current offering, by the way): "I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it."
Read about all the ways to get free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park on The Public Theater's website.
What are your favorite Shakespeare in the Park line memories? Tell us in the comments!
Top image: Elyse and her family, waiting in line for The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park to Othello in 2018. Photo courtesy of the author.