What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.
Imagine 'Hamlet' by the Harbor
By Steven Maler, 4/1/2002
N 1959 a young Joseph Papp asked New York City to construct a permanent outdoor amphitheater in Central Park for his five-year-old organization, the New York Shakespeare Festival, which had been performing free Shakespeare in city parks. Three years later, Papp would open the 2,000-seat Delacorte Theater with a production of ''The Merchant of Venice'' starring an unknown actor named George C. Scott.
Since that first extraordinary summer at the Delacorte Theater, named for publisher and philanthropist George Delacorte, approximately 4 million people have seen free productions in Central Park - 4 million people who otherwise might never have seen a live production of a Shakespeare play.
Actors who are now household names trod the boards of the Delacorte, including Richard Dreyfuss, Olympia Dukakis, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Cicely Tyson, and Denzel Washington. The pay wasn't great, but actors came back year after year to perform the best plays ever written, to work purely for love of their craft, and to share Shakespeare's great stories with the next generation of theatergoers.
Papp was a true theatrical titan, whose funeral procession in 1991 shut down the streets of New York. He reintroduced the idea that theater should be for everyone, not just those who could afford increasingly expensive tickets. Ben Jonson said it about Shakespeare, but it equally applies to Papp: ''He was not of an age, but for all time.''
It is in his enormous footprints that I humbly follow.
In 1996, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company sprung into life with the mission of bringing free Shakespeare to Boston. Our audience is truly a cross-section of Boston: It's young, multi-cultural, and passionate about Shakespeare. We have won their loyalty by consistently presenting work of the highest artistic merit.
Our success has come about by the profound commitment of individuals and institutions - The City of Boston, The Wang Center for the Performing Arts, Douglas and Judith Krupp, and Susan and Bill Poduska to name just a few.
We are poised for the next step.
In 2004, 30 acres of prime downtown land will be reclaimed as the elevated highway comes tumbling down. We are at an historic moment, a point in time where legacies will be created.
How do we ensure that this new space teems with life and vitality? How do we weave Boston's diverse communities together?
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a beautiful open-air theater where tons of concrete now stand. Imagine the ocean breeze, the sunset, and ''To be or not to be, that is the question.''
Frederick Law Olmsted, the vision behind Central Park and the Emerald Necklace, believed passionately in ''democracy in the dirt.'' Open spaces should be welcoming, shared, and vital. Who better than Shakespeare, who wrote for the nobility and the common man, to bring life and unity to this new piece of land?
Last week I took a tour of the Delacorte Theater. It is still shuttered for winter; but standing on the stage, you can literally feel the history. What amazing actors have been here! What fantastic poetry! What great audiences!
The day at the Delacorte reminded me of a tour of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that ended on a balcony facing the Potomac. Looking back at the building I read this quotation etched into the building: ''I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well'' - John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The surface artery has been named the Rose Kennedy Greenway. How fitting that this new jewel in the necklace be named for the woman whose son gave us the American Camelot - a time when many great arts edifices across the country were built. We have circled back to that moment again.
Why shouldn't Boston have a world-class Shakespeare company performing in a world-class theater in a world-class new park? There are many excuses, but none that cannot be overcome with imagination and hard work. I hope that you will join with me to dream a new future for our city. Shakespeare said it best:
''O brave new world...''
Steven Maler is the founding artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.