Get in Line!

Special Features   Get in Line! What's it like to wait in line for the free, hot tickets of Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park? Well, it can be hot, but it's also an essential New York experience. We take you there.

Fans line up in Central Park
Fans line up in Central Park Photo by Thomas Peter

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Books, games, food, drink, friends and plenty of blankets and mattresses. They were all useful distractions for people in Central Park on the mornings of June 26 and 27 as I was waiting in line with them for same-day free tickets to the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale.

The experience of waiting in line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, from the wee hours of the morning until they're distributed each day at the Delacorte Theater's box office at 1 PM, has become a New York institution.

Masha, who moved to New Jersey from Russia four years ago, was in line for the first time to see Winter's Tale. She had seen many Shakespeare plays in indoor theatres, but wanted to see at least one in the park because, she told me, "I think it's part of the New York experience [and] for me, this could potentially be my last summer for a while in New York, so I figured I should do it."

This year, audiences can wait in line for two different shows in the same weekend if they wish, as Merchant and Winter's Tale are performing in rotating repertory (if not always on successive nights).  

Lily Rabe and Al Pacino
photo by Joan Marcus

The prospect of free tickets, a summer night in the park and exciting theatre with accomplished and often starry casts is an appealing combination. This year, Tony, Oscar and Emmy winner Al Pacino and respected theatre veteran Lily Rabe headline Merchant. Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Tony nominee Linda Emond lead the Winter's Tale cast, and stage and television notables Jesse L. Martin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Hamish Linklater and Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste appear in both productions.

The productions attract every sort of theatregoer, from senior citizens (who get their own waiting line, as do patrons with disabilities) to families to middle-aged professionals. Many I talked to were in their 20s and early 30s — co-workers and friends who were more than up for the adventure of getting in line at 5 or 6 AM (or earlier), with little opportunity to get up and move around for some eight hours, except to use the bathroom or grab a snack at the theatre's café. (No cutting allowed, either.)

Many line up well before sunrise outside the nearest park entrance to the Delacorte, at 81st Street and Central Park West. Some 200 were waiting there around 5 AM June 26, when I arrived for Merchant. Although the Public does not encourage this practice — loitering for the sake of art before park hours — theatre officials escort these intrepid souls into the park when it opens at 6 AM. (Just don't bother camping out inside the park over night for tickets. Since the park is officially closed from 1 AM to 6 AM, you may have to deal with the NYPD overnight, or with the Public officials in the morning. I saw a group being escorted out of the park as we walked in.)

Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Winter's Tale
photo by Joan Marcus

Sharon, who works in finance, camped outside the 81st Street entrance with a friend for Merchant tickets starting at 9:30 PM the night before. Having missed getting tickets to last year's Twelfth Night even though she got in line at 5 AM, she said, "This year, we learned." She was looking forward to seeing Al Pacino on stage but admitted, "It's something I think I'll do once. I don't know if I'll do it again."

Many in line for Winter's Tale tickets, however, had already seen Merchant, and several theatregoers in both lines were veterans of other Shakespeare in the Park shows in previous years.

Michael, a piano player who got in line for Merchant tickets around the time that I arrived, said he stood in line ten times for Hair in 2008 (and got tickets every time). He, too, was there mainly because "it's such a New York thing [… and] just a lot of fun."

Often, friends will come into the park throughout the day to hang out (and help out) those who are waiting. Michael, who waited in line with his friend Gabe, said, "We set up this entire system when we do this. Everyone in line gets two tickets [per person]. So what we do is, we have representatives who wait in line." Other friends will sleep in at home but call later in the day and then come to the park to bring coffee, food, or whatever the line-waiters need to make the often tedious wait more bearable. "We call them 'show support,'" Michael said. While these supporters cannot join the line, "they can sit with us and hang out." (Support later appeared in the form of friends Andrew and John, who provided Michael and Gabe, and my sheepishly grateful self, with cookies, Gummy bears, water and soda, umbrellas from the hot sun, and company.)

You can also get food delivered to you in line courtesy of Andy's Deli or Big Nick's Pizza. (Public Theater staff will happily give you their contact information.) Musical entertainment may also be on hand; I saw a flautist perform for the Merchant line and a saxophonist appear for Winter's Tale. The line forms rain or shine; there was talk of rain when I interviewed the much shorter line of people who were waiting for Winter's Tale tickets June 27. At 6 AM, there were approximately 50-75 people waiting. By 8 AM, there were about 200 — the same number in line for Merchant outside the park at 5 AM the day before. The cloudier weather seemed to put people in a quieter mood, but visitors, books and magazines, and food were still welcome components for most.

At 1 PM each day, ticket distribution begins. Line waiters can finally get up and walk, but must form a single-file line to move to the Delacorte box office and receive their tickets. For the Merchant performance I attended, after the initial supply of tickets was handed out, some 50 patrons were given vouchers, which count for two tickets each. Voucher holders may return to the park around 8 PM, when unused tickets are handed out. They get first dibs on said tickets, and after their vouchers are redeemed, any remaining unused tickets are given to people in the standby line, which forms immediately after the last tickets are given out at 1 PM.

There is also the alternative option of skipping the Central Park line altogether and putting yourself in the virtual ticket lottery at shakespeareinthepark.org, which you can enter between midnight and 1 PM on the day you wish to attend. By 5 PM, you will be notified by email if you got tickets. If you snag tickets this way, you have to pick them up at the box office by 7 PM or they will be released to the standby line.

Everyone with whom I stood in line for Winter's Tale got tickets — from Shawn, a United Nations intern from Australia who got in line at 11:45 PM the night before, to a few folks who jumped into the end of the line shortly before the final tickets were handed out that afternoon. Zach Spicer, a security guard for the Public, told me, "We always sell out both shows. It's just a matter of when. We don't sell out as early [for Winter's Tale] as we do for Merchant."

Demand for Merchant tickets was higher, he admitted, with lines typically stretching from the Delacorte box office all the way back to Central Park Reservoir, largely because of "the Al Pacino factor." (Reviews for both productions were published after my experience in line, with strong notices for both shows and many raves in particular for Merchant. With the heightened awareness these reviews bring, all bets are off as to what time would be best to get in line for either show.)

Many keep coming back year after year, early morning after early morning, regardless of show or cast — and many others remain eager to have their first experience. In the morning before getting her Winter's Tale tickets, Masha laughed, recalling her anxiety over getting to the park. "I got a cab and said, 'You've got to really drive fast!' [The driver said,] 'How fast?' I said, 'Really fast.' And we were really lucky — green lights from 31st Street to 60th Street, [the] first stop by Central Park. … I got here at 5:30 and was like, 'I need a drink.'"

The productions run in rotation through Aug. 1. For more information, visit shakespeareinthepark.org.

It's not "waiting for Godot," it's waiting for free tickets to The Public's Shakespeare in the Park productions.
It's not "waiting for Godot," it's waiting for free tickets to The Public's Shakespeare in the Park productions. Photo by Thomas Peter
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