By Carol Tannenhauser
The Delacorte Theater, best known for its free performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the midst of Central Park, is getting a “much-needed revitalization” by The Public Theater, in partnership with the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Parks Department, a press release announced on Wednesday.
After three years of work and study, delayed by the pandemic, a design has been arrived at, which will be presented to the first of many community boards on Thursday.
The project is expected to cost $77 million, with $41 million contributed by the Mayor, City Council and Manhattan Borough President, and the rest raised privately. Pending approvals, including that of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, work is anticipated to begin in the fall of 2022.
“The renovation of The Delacorte is not optional,” the release explained. “The deteriorating structure is in dire need of rebuilding to provide upgraded and more comfortable conditions for staff, artists and audiences alike. It lacks modern back-of-house theatrical operations and does not ensure equitable access for those living with disabilities.
Key proposed design elements include:
Accessible and comfortable space for audiences and artists living with disabilities: Built  before many of the modern accessibility codes, the existing Delacorte possesses only one access point for people living with disabilities and only one row of seating in the front row on house right. The proposed design will bring the whole theater in line with current code, focusing on maximizing accessibility– making two gates accessible for people who use wheelchairs, adding stage accessibility interventions to make the stage accessible for artists with disabilities, and creating an accessible cross aisle to provide people who use wheelchairs a more equitable experience of attending performances at The Delacorte.
Streamlined backstage operations and improved comfort for cast and crew: The new design improves inefficiencies across the theater which will decrease time needed for load in, load out and change between productions. Back-of-house investments are also aimed at improving the staff and artist experience, with purpose-built dressing rooms, bigger hallways, and climate control for enclosed spaces.
Revitalized exterior for a more dynamic aesthetic experience: The theater’s exterior wall will be canted slightly outward to give The Delacorte a dynamic presence and movement. The textured wood façade plays with light and shadow, complementing the natural setting of trees and overhead foliage. The new covered canopy and widened bluestone pathway will welcome visitors, provide more generous circulation and increased shelter from rain and sun. Nestled in the natural treescape of Central Park, the seating will comprise a diverse range of colors both blending with and enhancing the seasonal changes of the surroundings.
A focus on resilience and sustainability: The existing decking has sustained significant damage that has caused numerous points of rebuild for each season. As weather fluctuates more wildly and storms get more unpredictable, that level of constant repair is only expected to grow unless serious investments are made. The proposed design contemplates the use of products that have been approved by NYC Parks and used throughout that are more durable and sustainable with the changing elements; improved drainage around the site will help plan for storms of greater strength and unpredictability.
Lighting improvements: Newly-designed lighting towers will provide improved lighting for the stage and performances, adding to the overall theatrical experience and ambiance. The new towers will also include additional safety features for crew members and increase efficiency for load in and load out of shows
Improved sprinkler and fire alarm systems
Improved exterior and interior signage and wayfinding
The Public is also in conversations with the City Parks Department to improve and expand the comfort stations which serve as the theater’s restrooms during performances.”
The project is committed to prioritizing diverse hiring, the release said, “exceeding the City and State’s minimum requirements for contracting Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises and Locally-based Business Enterprises (MWBEs and LBEs).” Designed by Ennead Architects, it is also committed to preserving the sanctity of Central Park.
“Over the last several years, the Public worked with park stakeholders and design experts to closely study the potential impact of construction on the surrounding natural environment and arrived at a plan which will take great care to protect it. Central Park is not only crucial to the experience of Free Shakespeare in the Park; it is the backdrop that inspires its actors and captivates its audiences.”