Now celebrating its 12th season, New York Classical Theatre continues its mission of presenting free productions of classics of the theater in public spaces with their upcoming version of William Shakespeare's Henry V, opening Wednesday, July 6.
Partnering for the first time with the River To River Festival for that organization's 10th anniversary, NYCT will stage Shakespeare's seafaring, swashbuckling history play at Castle Clinton in Battery Park, on a boat ride across the harbor, and at the historic Fort Jay on Governors Island.
NYCT founder and artistic director Stephen Burdman calls Henry V "our most ambitious production ever, with a cast of 40, the company's largest ever," adding that "it's not often that theater artists and audiences get to enjoy a set that encompasses two islands and a waterway."
Previous NYCT programming has made use of Central Park (including the recent School for Husbands by Moliere), the World Financial Center (last spring's The Rover by Aphra Behn), and Battery Park (Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart in 2006).
NYCT's signature staging style, called Panoramic Theatre, literally makes "the venue a character in the play, much like an actor. The venue becomes an active member of the ensemble," according to Burdman. If someone or something interrupts or wanders into the staging area, the actors simply integrate them into the scene, bringing them into the play.
Because the audience follows the actors from place to place, the spectators become active participants in the drama itself. Burdman mentioned a particular instance when an audience member's dog barked wildly as Antigonus "exited pursued by a bear" in NYCT's 2002 Central Park production of Twelfth Night.
With Henry V, New York Classical Theatre will have produced 26 free plays in its 12-year history for over well over 100,000 spectators (which does not include those additional folks who watched the rehearsals that also took place in the public venues).
Burdman says that NYCT's hallmark is accessibility, offering open-air theater free of charge to people of all ages, ethnicities, educational backgrounds, and income levels. "We want to make sure everyone is having a good time, but this is not dumbed-down Shakespeare," he adds. "This is a quality theater experience."
"At a recent show," says Burdman, "a young woman introduced herself to me and told me she had been coming to New York Classical Theatre productions since she was in the sixth grade. When I asked her what grade she was in now, she replied 'college.' So she has become a lifelong theatergoer."
Burdman typically cuts the texts of the plays so that NYCT shows run under 2 hours, but this special semi-maritime show will have a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, which includes the 10-15 minute ferry ride (each way) back and forth to Governors Island.
Special wristbands (limited to two per person) will be handed out from 5-6:30pm in front of Castle Clinton on the day of each performance. Only 500 will be available and are required for the free transportation to Governors Island, which has been generously donated by Statue Cruises. Performances begin promptly at 7pm.
With Henry V, audience members will journey with King Henry (the now mature young Prince Hal from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) and his army from 15th century England (Battery Park) across the English Channel (New York Harbor) to France (Governors Island) where the famous Battle of Agincourt will be staged.
In addition, there will be dramatic scenes on both legs of the ferry ride, with the final set of scenes in Battery Park with the King of France traveling to England to deliver the peace treaty.
"I always look to challenge myself as a director and producer -- and to challenge the audience," says Burdman. Staging a classic William Shakespeare play on land and at sea is a challenge indeed.