THE CULTURE CLUB
If William Shakespeare could walk through Central Park on a midsummer’s night, he might happen upon a dreamlike spectacle: actors in costumes strolling under trees, reciting his own words—and around them, a spellbound crowd of women, men and children.
The Bard would surely approve. Over the past decade, theater director Stephen Burdman has brought the works of Shakespeare and other classics to tens of thousands of New Yorkers by mounting free performances throughout Central and Battery parks.
Burdman’s New York Classical Theatre, the nonprofit he founded in 2000, attracts one of the most diverse audiences in the city, said board chairman Jon Lukomnik.
“We give access to everybody from bike messengers and ladies-who-lunch to European tourists who spent their budget on Broadway the night before,” Lukomnik said.
Ginny Myers Lee, an actor who has performed with the company for two seasons, praised Burdman for staying true to a centuries-old concept.
“Stephen has taken the idea of bringing theater to the masses and realized it in much the same way as it was done in Shakespeare’s time,” Lee said. “The audience is part of the play, they feel like they’re allowed to participate, and that creates a wonderful relationship between audience and actors.”
Burdman brings the performers and audience together using his own staging method, known as “panoramic theater.” Characters enter or exit using hills or trees, and viewers are free to sit or stand wherever they want—even behind the actors. The effect of this 360-degree approach is, as one regular said, that the spectator feels like “a fly on the wall,” a living, breathing piece of the action.
The goal is to make the theater experience no work and all play. Instead of buying tickets, audience members simply gather at a designated spot at the appointed time. Passersby are always drawn in, causing the audience to double or even triple over the course of an evening to up to a thousand people.
Burdman, 42, who is originally from Los Angeles and started out as a computer science major, first developed his theatrical approach as an ardent member of his college drama club.
“We were constantly brainstorming, ‘How do we get more people into the theater?’ So we took scenes and performed them in the lobbies of dorm rooms,” he said. “All people had to do was come down in their sweats and see a play.”
Today, people of all ages and backgrounds can watch his stagings of the classics in the park. So far, more than 55,000 have seen New York Classical Theatre’s shows, not counting those who attend free rehearsals and pre-show workshops. The company’s mailing list contains more than 400 unique ZIP codes, further proof of the widespread support Burdman and his colleagues enjoy.
“I’m still amazed that people show up and move with us every summer,” Burdman said. “We even get fan mail for Shakespeare!”
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