Shakespeare in the digital age

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  • Statue of Romeo and Juliet in Central Park. Photo: Ron Cogswell, via flickr

“Et tu, Brute?” Change has come to Shakespeare in the Park.

by lorraine duffy merkl

This summer event has been a ritual for me for the past 37 years. I have my routine down pat: at the crack of dawn, I (sometimes joined by my husband or daughter) hike over to Central Park with a blanket and good book, order breakfast from Andy’s Deli (“Bacon and egg on a roll and coffee with milk. I’m just past the big rock.”) Then I (we) sit on line for the next four hours to get free tickets to whatever Bard performance is offered. For the 2017 season at the Delacorte Theater, “Julius Caesar” is currently playing with the controversial Trump-a-like portrayal of the title role, and a female actor as Marc Antony. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begins July 11.

The process has always been simple enough: you wait, then everyone rises in unison and moves towards the theater where a staffer with tickets asks how many in your party; each person’s allowed two tickets.

This year though, when The Public Theater personnel made their way down the winding path shouting the usual instructions about no line cutting and bringing food/beverages into the show, they added a new twist: everyone had to register for tickets on their smartphones.

Say what?

According to a theater representative, the new digital system is meant to keep the shows as open to as many people as possible, by cutting down on how many times someone can see the play, as well as making scalping more prohibitive.

We needed to type in in order to get a Patron ID number. At noon, the line would move toward the box office where the employee at the desk would look up our ID and print out the tickets. For those without a smartphone or stymied by doing anything electronically, staff members would come around with iPads and give an assist.

After the momentary jolt of panic from having a new step added to the process, it turned out to be no big deal. Yet I found myself massaging my temples to thwart my oncoming headache.

Make no mistake, I have always embraced technology, but I find it refreshing when transactions need not require my email address.

New York City, with its population of 8.55 million packed together on an island, can still be a very isolating place, the age-old complaint that many people don’t even know their neighbors. On a beautiful summer day, you can go in a crowded Carl Schurz Park and still feel alone. In many of our stores, efficiency is valued over friendliness, where both merchant and buyer want to get in and get out in a New York minute. There are many empty stores on East 86th Street as well as avenues like Madison, Lex, and Third due to, not only skyrocketing rents, but the fact that people just would rather do business online and have the goods come to them.

I’m no stranger to this behavior myself — that’s why I appreciate the rare exchanges like going into the candy store/newsstand across from my house where I kibitz with the owner, who always wants to know why I’m not buying a lottery ticket for what is invariably “the biggest jackpot ever.” I like my interactions at the Mansion Diner — the Upper East Side’s answer to Cheers — where everybody knows your name and treats you like they’re glad you came. I take comfort in my relationships (as mundane as they are) with my neighborhood stores like Angel Nails, Mekong Laundry, and Oxford Cleaners. I know them; they know me.

Shakespeare in the Park, albeit seasonal, has always been a part of my lay of the land. I guess the modification to online registration, although slight and well intentioned, triggered that there might be bigger changes to come, like a virtual line. Perhaps that would be a relief for some, but not for me.

Over the years, I have learned to welcome the camaraderie of waiting for tickets with other New Yorkers, fielding the proverbial question “What’s the queue for?” from passersby, and just the unbroken hours taking in the bikers/dog walkers/musicians and general people watching that is Central Park.

I don’t know if, in summers to come, the experience as I’ve known it will go on. I guess all that matters is that the show does. And like Caesar, I “shall go forth.”

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Back to Work She Goes”and “Fat Chick,” for which a movie version is in the works.

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