shakespeare_park_2009.gifLast weekend, I waited for twelve hours, first outside and then inside Central Park, for tickets to see the final performance of the Public Theater’s production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater, featuring Anne Hathaway in the role of Viola. Like many people, I’d put off going to wait on line because of the rainy weather in June, and I’d had no luck with the “Virtual Line” — an online lottery in which (I’m told) about 50 tickets are distributed to each performance. Last year, the friend with whom I typically go see Shakespeare in the Park actually received tickets to see Hair via the “vline” (alas, on a night I couldn’t make it), but generally speaking the odds are ridiculously slim.

I was thwarted twice earlier in the week in my attempts to get on line. On Wednesday, I arrived at about 7:00; the line stretched inside the park from the Delacorte up to the equivalent of about 4 blocks north, making the chances of receiving tickets remote if you were just joining the line. And when a park worker decided to force people to move at the end of the line, which had snaked around onto the bridle path, the ensuing chaos led me to give it up for another day.

I returned on Friday, this time at 5:50 a.m. before the park officially opens, and I discovered that people had been waiting on Central Park West outside the park starting in the wee hours of the night. By the time I found the end of the line, it had grown to five blocks long and around into the transverse at 86th Street. In fact, there were so many people that I didn’t manage actually to join the line once it was inside the park: we were told that the line had reached its “legal limit,” and a police cruiser had parked after the last legal person to make sure that no one else could join. Someone near the front of the line had a cardboard sign that read: “Waiting since 11 p.m. last night.” Many of the people in the front of the line didn’t look like they’d be attending the play: there’s been a brisk trade (conducted via Craig’s List and eBay) in line-waiting for the production. When I checked, people were willing to wait on line to procure 2 tickets for the fee of $150.

It became a point of pride for me to get the damn tickets, particularly when I read some Facebook postings from a friend who had seen the production on “a perfect night.” The outdoor Delacorte is a wonderful venue on a beautiful summer night, set as it is in front of a pond with Belvedere Castle looming in the distance.

Just before I set off at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night, I checked online and found a posting from someone who claimed to have gotten on line at 9:30 p.m. and was offering his tickets for $250.

Joe Papp founded “Shakespeare Theater” in 1954 and the first public performance took place in 1956. Papp battled Robert Moses for the right to produce Shakespeare plays in Central Park, and luckily this was another battle over the use of land in Manhattan that Moses lost. (You can read about the history of theater in New York’s parks on this page from NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation.)

I’ve been attending Shakespeare in the Park for the past thirty years. I’ve been trying to figure out which was the first production I saw, and in the process I discovered that there is no official listing of the productions online. So one person has taken it upon himself to make one up, and you can find it here. I know I saw famous production of The Pirates of Penzance with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt in 1980, but that was when I was in college, and I’m relatively certain that I’d been going while I was in high school at least. I think there’s a stash of old programs in my dad’s apartment; I’ll have to do a little archival work to figure it out.

In recent years, you would get tickets by waiting either in the Park or at the Public Theater near Astor Place; two tickets would be distributed to each person in line starting at 1:00 p.m in both locations until the tickets were all gone. The last two years, because of the renovations taking place at the Public, the only place to wait in person has been Central Park itself. The vline was created to make it possible for those who couldn’t wait in the park to have a chance at tickets.

When I was growing up, though, the process was different. Tickets were distributed at 6:00 p.m. and both of the people using them had to be there at that time. My parents and I would typically start waiting in the morning; the line follow the perimeter of the Great Lawn and we would bring a picnic lunch and reading materials. I’m not sure which system is better, frankly. The new system was designed to make it easier for people who couldn’t afford to wait all day or couldn’t make it from their places of work to receive tickets at 6:00 p.m. But there’s something unseemly about the proxies waiting in line for a fee. The Public Theater has tried to crack down on that; apparently, if they stopped giving tickets to people they noticed who had waited on line day after day without attending. Or so the rumor was on the line.

I joined the line on Saturday morning at 12:40 a.m. It was pouring rain, and as a concession to the weather and to my wife’s fears, I elected not to bike up as I had done the two previous times. The subway took a while (N from Union Square to 34th Street; no B on the weekend, so D to 59th Street, then A to 81st Street and Central Park West). And I found myself back on 86th Street again, though the line was considerably more attenuated that it had been when I arrived on Friday morning. Someone waiting just behind me (with his mother) did a rough count and estimated that there were 250 people ahead of us.

The rain stopped around 1:30 a.m.; I was dry as a result of a Gore-Tex parka, Gore-Tex pants, and a big golf umbrella. We went into the park at 6:00 a.m., and I ended up around the equivalent of 83rd Street — a reasonably safe position, we were told at the time. I’d never waited that long for one of these productions (though I wait overnight outside Carnegie Hall when I was in 11th grade to get tickets to a Vladimir Horowitz piano recital and did something similar at the old Out of Town News in Cambridge two years later to get Bruce Springsteen tickets).

The boy and his mom had an air mattress. The guy in front of me (a 17-year-old with no rain proctection save for a plastic garbage bag) turned out to be waiting for him and his mom. He befriend some twenty-something girls ahead of me in line, one of whom left to join another group of friends who arrived at 2:40 rather than 12:30 a.m. Waiting for the tickets and observing the dynamics of the line and talking to those around you is a crucial part of the Shakespeare in the Park experience, and it makes for a much richer experience at the Delacorte when the play is good and the audience has put in the hours to get the tickets.

I’m glad I waited. I got the tickets. (I later found out that the people who arrived after 4:00 a.m. did not.) The play was good. The appealing Anne Hathaway did a nice job with the role of Viola (she can cry on a dime!), and she was surrounded with wonderful stage actors including Audra McDonald, Jay O. Sanders, and Michael Cumpsty. And I was pleased to see that the audience was filled with young people in their late teens and twenties.

I don’t think I’m going to have to wait as long for the next production, which is a less popular play — The Bacchae by Euripedes — with no film stars in the cast and an avant-garde director (JoAnne Akalaitis) and an avant-garde score (by Philip Glass).

But I could be wrong: the appeal of free theater is higher in these days of economic hardship. 

My advice if you’re thinking of waiting: go early in the run, which begins on August 11. Go before the reviews come out. If you’re inclined to pay, you can become a “summer supporter“: your deductible contribution of $170 will get you one seat (subject to the vagaries of weather: if it’s early enough in the run and your show is rained out, there’s the possibility of a seat to a later performance).