New York: A guide to getting free Shakespeare in the Park tickets


shakspeare in the park
Shakespeare in the Park is a New York summer must-do. Photo: rebecca marks.

They start lining up in the purple light of early morning, with their coffees and their bagels and their blankets. By 10 a.m. the line snakes down along the path, well into the park, and the wait goes on…

And so begins the beloved New York tradition that is Shakespeare in the Park.

History of Shakespeare in the Park

Much ado about something

Rain or shine they come. They wait in line, they endure mosquitoes, they strain to hear over car alarms… But why all the hype around Shakespeare in the Park? Well, New Yorkers are fanatic about their traditions, and rightly so about this one.  It has certainly accomplished the goal of Joseph Papp, who founded the Shakespeare Workshop (today’s Public Theater) in 1954 with the goal of bringing the Bard to those who might not otherwise experience him.

Like many of the city’s institutions, this one began as a scrappy upstart, running early performances in a crumbling church, along the East River, and then at Turtle Pond in Central Park before the Delacorte Theater was built opened in 1962. And oh what a theater it is. With Belvedere Castle rising in the background, this is magical place for enjoying theater alfresco—whether you’re dancing with the cast at the end of “Hair,” or enjoying the stars and Turtle Pond while Lorenzo praises “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!” in “The Merchant of Venice.”

It’s this magic, along with rotating all-star casts (James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and many others have graced this stage), that keep people coming back for this fabulous, and FREE, event.

And it is the combination of free and popular that adds up to ever-increasing competition for tickets. Your options can sometimes seem confusing, but we’ve broken down all the ways you can score seats, and threw in some tips for good measure.

Getting tickets the simple way

A midsummer day’s wait

The most common way to acquire Shakespeare in the Park tickets is to wait in line, sometimes for hours. Tickets are distributed in front of the Delacorte (enter the park at Central Park West and 81st Street) on the day of each showing.

Bring entertainment to make the wait fun. Photo: smackfu.

Bring entertainment to make the wait fun. Photo: smackfu.

Here’s what you need to know about receiving one:

1. Arrive early. Tickets are distributed at noon on a first-come, first-served basis, so would-be attendees have been known to camp out and wait. How early should you arrive? Well, the park opens at 6 a.m. (don’t come earlier than this), and many will begin lining up then. We say arrive no later than 10 a.m., but if you get in line around 8 a.m. you should be okay.

2. Bring supplies. You’ll be sitting until noon, so bring along items to occupy yourself. Books, magazines, even a game will surely come in handy. And don’t forget a blanket or chair, plus food and plenty of water.

3. Come in a group and arrive together. Tickets are distributed two per person, so if you need more than two tickets, be sure to bring along a buddy (that game you brought is more fun with a pal anyway). However, note that latecomers are not allowed, so make sure your group arrives together or you’ll all be sent to the back of the line.

4. Don’t leave the line. You leave the line, and you lose your place, so plan to stay put. Bathroom breaks are, of course, allowed, and you can find restrooms right at the Delacorte. They are relatively clean, but because they will be used a lot, you may want to add tissues and hand sanitizer to that supply list.

5. Time it well. When tickets are handed out at noon, will you get one? Depends on your place in the line, of course. A latecomer’s best chance for scoring a ticket will be on a weekday, or if you brave the wait on a rainy day when fewer folks will venture out.

Other options for tickets

To wait or not to wait

The wait for tickets is completely worth it, and some might even call it part of the fun, but there are times when you just aren’t able to sit in line for hours. Never fear, you still have options:

Brave the rain for a better chance at tickets. Photo: lilyo.

Brave the rain for a better chance at tickets. Photo: lilyo.

Head to an outer borough. On select dates, vouchers are available at outer borough locations between 12 and 2 p.m. Supplies are limited, so we again suggest arriving as close to the noon open time as possible. Note that once you receive your voucher, you’ll have to be at the Delacorte between 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to exchange it for a ticket. Check the Shakespeare in the Park site for information on dates and locations for these tickets.

Enter the lottery. The Public Theater also offers a daily online raffle for those who can’t make it to the park to wait. Simply create an account and sign in between midnight and noon on the day of the performance. You’ll receive an email after 12 p.m. letting you know whether or not you have received tickets, and then you can pick up your tickets at the Delacorte between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Stand-by. If tickets are available before the start of the show, they are distributed, one per person, to those in the stand-by line. Guests can line up for to wait as early as 1 p.m., but we’d say 5:30 p.m. is a reasonable time to start waiting. The same rules apply: Bring food and entertainment, and know that this is not a sure thing (but if nothing else you’ve enjoyed a picnic in the park).

Tell us: Have you been to Shakespeare in the Park? Do you have any tips for obtaining tickets?


About the author

Suzanne Russo

About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.

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