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From Caravans to Delacorte: A History of Shakespeare in the Park

Every summer, in large cities and small towns across America, William Shakespeare commandeers the public parks. The local Shakespeare in the Park festivals are almost always free, and, to be candid, of varying production values. For some people, it’s the only theatre they’ll see all year.

So how and why did this summer ritual begin?

Most people will point to the genius of Joseph Papp, the founder of the esteemed Public Theater in New York City. In 1954, Papp began offering free productions of Shakespeare plays in parks on the Lower East Side. He later moved the plays to Turtle Pond in Central Park, where audiences grew to the thousands. Papp kept the plays free, but not without a fight. He found a vociferous adversary in New York’s most famous and curmudgeonly park commissioner, Robert Moses, who demanded that Papp charge $1-$2 per ticket to cover the cost of replacing grass damaged by the theatre goers. Papp refused, and the two battled it out in court for roughly one year, during which Moses circulated an anonymous letter calling Papp a communist.

The court sided with Papp, and Moses complied in typical Moses fashion. “Well, let’s build the bastard a theatre,” he told the city’s Board of Estimate. The Board earmarked $250,000 for the construction of the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, which opened in 1961. To this day, the Delacorte is home to the annual New York Shakespeare Festival, and tickets are still free.

There’s no question that Papp was a visionary. But the idea for free theatre in the parks has an even older and stranger origin.

In the mid-1930s, the United States’ federal government put tens of thousands of unemployed American theatre professionals back to work under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), one of four artistic arms of the Works Progress Administration (the others were the Federal Writers, Arts, and Music Projects). The FTP sponsored hundreds of theatre programs across the country, including a travelling Mystery Show that crossed state lines to perform in Roosevelt’s “CCC Camps” – Civilian Conservation Corps sites where young, single men were paid to construct public roads and plant trees in national parks. The New York Federal Theatre Project was the largest of the Federal Theatre groups, and one of its most popular programs was the Caravan Theatre Series.  

From 1935-1938, the Caravan Theatre mounted an array of crowd-pleasing performances in parks throughout all five of New York City’s boroughs. As the name suggests, the actors transported and performed the shows (nightly, from Tuesday through Saturday) on mobile, truck-driven stages called “caravans.” Once parked, one whole side of the caravan folded downward to create a stage and proscenium. If the show required mid-scene costume changes, long “wings” of opaque fabric were extended outward from the stage at ground level to give the actors cover.  Each caravan carried scenery, lighting equipment, and a rudimentary sound system made up of lawn microphones and three large horns that blasted the actors’ voices throughout whatever park they were stationed in for the evening.

Lengths of rope or tape marked off the audience areas, leaving room, if needed, between the audience and stage for a small orchestra.

Caravan Theater in Crotona Park, ca. 1936
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Caravan Theater in Crotona Park, ca. 1936

Like the Shakespeare festivals of today, the Caravan Theatre performed the Bard’s most beloved masterpieces, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brooks Atkinson, an early 20th-century critic known for his wit and discerning yet eclectic tastes, had this to say about one Caravan production of the play:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is make-believe, which is a virtue, for it appeals to the imagination and there were imaginations ready to be moved last evening. By and large, the audience was willing. The spectators as well as the actors gave a pretty good account of themselves. If the Federal Theatre is glad of the opportunity to go into boroughs and let the drama stand on its merits as popular entertainment, one can share its enthusiasm. The Caravan Theatre is one of the most interesting projects in Cosmopolis.

Atkinson generally endorsed Caravan productions, but in that same review he remained unconvinced that Shakespeare should be performed outside, through a loudspeaker, and among a chattering audience—a prescient summation of how many contemporary Shakespeare in the Park audiences feel:

Certainly the verse does not come off well. A broad park is no place for purely lyric raptures in a language unfamiliar to the common ear.

Shakespearean dramas weren’t the only theatre performed by the Caravan. Their repertoire included a ten-act vaudeville piece comprised of joke-telling and musical numbers, and a range of modern comedies like Chekhov’s The Marriage Proposal and the wildly popular The Milky Way, a screwball one-act about a milkman who becomes a boxer (the play was adapted in 1936 into a film of the same name starring Harold Lloyd) . In Silver Lake Park, Staten Island, the roving entertainers also produced Treasure Island, a brilliant spectacle staged over the water and requiring of more than three-hundred people to pull off. Audiences went mad for the swashbuckling action—they returned again and again, often donning head wraps and eye patches.

Attendance figures for Caravan shows were staggering. In the summer of 1937 alone, more than 1,900,000 people saw Caravan productions.  That number would be notable at any time in history, but it’s especially remarkable given its particular historical moment. The Caravan operated during the nadir of the Great Depression, when Americans made barely enough money to feed their families, let alone to spend on frivolous entertainments. Most who attended the Caravan’s shows were impoverished laborers, many of whom had never previously seen a theatrical performance. They were drawn to the shows for a number of reasons: the free admission, the novelty of seeing live actors for the very first time, and for the chance to relax outside and inhale the fresh air. Indeed, most people who attended Caravan shows lived in New York’s most ramshackle tenements—air-tight fire traps with a tendency to collapse, killing its occupants and their rescuers.

These audiences helped inspire another FTP play called One-Third of a Nation, an exceedingly popular show that took the tenement problem as its artistic point of departure. The play was written and performed in the documentary-style, integrating film footage, actual names, and real-life tenement laws into a fictional story about a collapsing tenement building on the Lower East Side. The show generated such a degree of public outrage that city councils in New York and Philadelphia—which hosted the play a year later—drew up plans to tear down the slums and construct in their place safe and affordable housing.

Federal Theatre Project audiences were a sight to behold and bemoan among New York’s 1930s theatre cognoscenti. When reviewing Caravan shows in particular, Atkinson and his contemporaries marveled as much at the people in attendance—with their working-class dress and unfamiliarity with Broadway etiquette—as the shows themselves. Wrote Bosley Crowther of the New York Times:

Definitely the Caravan Theatre is bringing entertainment to New York’s city-pent masses…and this writer can only report what he has observed: youngsters crowding a vantage spot like flies on a lump of sugar, straining to see the stage; old women to whom the language being spoken by the actors was obviously Greek, rocking in unconscious merriment; a little towheaded rascal being dragged home, squalling fiercely, before the show was over.

The critics tended toward condescension, but they picked up on a characteristic common among audiences each and every night—they positively loved the theatre.

A special congressional committee dismantled the Federal Theatre Project in June of 1939 for allegedly harboring communists. The decision reads as ridiculous today but makes sense in historical context. Most FTP artists were in fact left-leaning, and many probably identified as communists. But so did most Americans who cared about workers’ rights during the 1930s, the era of the Popular Front. The decision to close the FTP had far more to do with anti-Roosevelt congressmen than any real congressional concern that the FTP was invested in “anti-American” activities.  With the FTP closed for good, theatre-makers once again found themselves out of work; some were even blacklisted for their association with the FTP. But its working-class audiences had been given a taste for theatre, and they wanted more.

In the decades that followed, community theatres cropped up all over the country, and the idea that theatre could take place in public spaces gained traction among professional companies. In 1957, Papp expanded his Shakespeare in the Park to include mobile units that would transport the productions to all five New York City boroughs. The tradition continues today. Now operating as part of The Public Theater, the Mobile Unit delivers Shakespeare productions by some of New York’s finest actors to community and senior centers, homeless shelters, and even prisons. To this end, the Public continues the short-lived but vital work of the Federal Theatre Project to keep a democratic ethos alive and well in the American theatre.