NEW YORK — As summer peeks around the corner, New Yorkers and organizers at the Public Theater are gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the beloved Shakespeare in the Park program at its current home in Central Park.
The half-century of free, staged Shakespeare in Central Park will be celebrated with performances of "As You Like It," June 5 to 30, directed by acclaimed theater artist Daniel Sullivan, and "Into the Woods," July 23 to August 25, directed by Timothy Sheader and featuring Amy Adams, both at the program's permanent stage at the Delacorte Theater.
More than 5 million people have attended the free plays since they began, back in 1954, as a traveling workshop run by producer Joseph Papp.
It wasn't until June 18, 1962, with a large donation from George T. Delacorte, Jr., that the open-air amphitheater established a permanent home for the series.
"In a democracy, culture is a birthright," said Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, at a press event at Joe's Pub, a live music hall at the theater's year-round Lafayette Street space on Wednesday.
The Bard will also hit the road this summer, with the theater producing free, mobile shows of "Richard III" in venues across the city that will include homeless shelters, prisons and centers for at-risk youth.
"Once again we are back out there making Shakespeare available to people who may not know they want it," said Eustis.
The Public Theater will also be taking the party Downtown this year, as the anniversary comes on the heels of the theater's $40 million revitalization project. The construction — which is expected to be finished in October — will transform the lobby of their landmarked building near Astor Place into a public piazza for artists, students and audiences.
"The Public Theater is, and always has been, for the people. The revitalization of our Downtown home will make the building more welcoming, vibrant and accessible for all New Yorkers," said Eustis.
The renovations will include the addition of a multimedia sculpture called the "Shakespeare Machine," which will be suspended from the lobby ceiling and have 37 screens showing snippets of select prose from many of the Bard's plays.
"It's a real tribute to the way that writers work," said Patrick Willingham, the Public Theater's executive director.
Donations from the theater's supporters account for more than 75 percent of its annual budget, according to the Public Theater.
For actor Sam Waterston, who played Hamlet at the Delacorte in 1975, the most important thing about the Public Theater's headquarters is its continued history.
"A good building holds memory," Waterston said at the event. "A good building holds action."
Free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park are given out, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park at 1 p.m. the day of the show, or distributed in the boroughs on select dates. To get to the box office, enter the park at Central Park West and West 81st Street, or Fifth Avenue and East 79th Street. Tickets are also available through a "virtual lottery" the day of the show on the Public Theater's website.