Performers from Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s “Hamlet”, including Gracie Winchester as Ophelia and Jane Bradley as a female Hamlet (Photo posted on Instagram by Gracie Winchester)

Shakespearean tragedies don’t typically see a peaceful resolution, but it looks like there’ll be a happy ending for a drama that unfolded center stage at a Community Board 3 meeting last month.

There, Hamilton Clancy, artistic director of the non-profit that runs Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, bemoaned the potential loss of their performance space at the parking lot managed by the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. His efforts to find a second home for the theater company in Sara D. Roosevelt Park had been met with bureaucratic red tape. All hope seemed to be lost.

At the meeting, the audience responded to his sorrowful news with sympathetic nods and supportive applause. Now, with local activists and elected officials rallying around Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, it will be allowed to remain in its namesake location.

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has been a cultural phenomenon on the Lower East Side for 24 years, ever since it first started offering free plays out of a municipal parking lot at the corner of Ludlow and Broome. The Drilling Company, led by Clancy, shifted its summer Shakespeare in the Parking Lot performances to the Clemente’s parking lot about three years ago. They also offer free spring performances in Bryant Park.

Things were pretty peachy during Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s first two years with the Clemente, a Lower East Side institution for the Puerto Rican and Latinx community that emphasizes diverse cultural programming. But last summer, an individual affiliated with the Clemente voiced strong concerns over an incident where an attendee brought a bottle of wine, which is not permitted in the parking lot. The Drilling Company had also begrudged the Clemente’s refusal to allow the actors and audience members to use restroom facilities on-site. Instead, patrons and performers had to schlep over to a nearby restaurant to use the restroom.

For Clancy, the fuss amounted to much ado about nothing. “All of a sudden, we had to have these hired security people at the gate. And we were like, ‘Why?’ And they were like, ‘Because of all the security threats.’ And I’m like, ‘There’s [no] security threats here. There’s no problem. We’re doing Shakespeare.’”

But even that petty drama seemed like water under the bridge compared to the Drilling Company’s meeting with the Clemente around the beginning of 2018, in which Clancy expected to continue their partnership under their existing terms of agreement. But he was in for a rude surprise. According to Clancy, the Clemente requested Shakespeare in the Parking Lot pay a sum of at least $100 per performance for security, stemming from their concerns over the wine debacle. On top of that, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot would have to pay $500 a week for use of the space, which was an increase in their fees from the previous year. It may not seem like a lot for prime space in lower Manhattan, but for a not-for-profit entity, it could have been a death blow. The space and security fees amounted to roughly a 400% increase from their previous cost of business at the Clemente, according to Clancy.

“[It] was a hefty increase. As it would turn out, it would be every ducat we would get in the bucket,” said Clancy. He was referring to the bucket that actors pass around at every performance to solicit audience members for “ducats”—gold coins used as currency in Europe centuries ago—or cash donations, which is one of their primary methods of fundraising.

In a follow-up email to Bedford + Bowery, Clancy said the Clemente’s actions lead him to question their value to the Lower East Side. “You stop and wonder if you’re being welcome[d] by the community that you’re  supposedly trying  to serve,” wrote Clancy.

They sought out alternative venues, but as Clancy found out, there aren’t a ton of parking spaces available for Shakespearean dramas on the Lower East Side. Eventually, Clancy reached out to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and placed a late permit application for the group to perform in Sara D. Roosevelt Park. The application was approved only for a one-time performance, which wouldn’t work out with their summer schedule. K Webster– president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Coalition, which has tried to bolster community use of the park– heard Clancy speak at the community board meeting and volunteered to assist with outreach to the department. Of Clancy’s efforts to secure space in the park, Webster said, “What ensued was a bureaucratic dance that took too much time – especially since it had to happen quickly to get the performance up and running in the park.”

Council Member Margaret Chin’s office also offered support to Clancy in his outreach with the department. Clancy told Bedford + Bowery that executive leadership of the Clemente—including Tim Laughlin as chair of the Clemente’s board of directors and Baltsar Beckeld as interim executive director of the Clemente—were responsible for bridging the impasse between the two parties. “When the Board of Directors of the Clemente got wind of what was going on, they reached out to us, and said, ‘What can we do to help Shakespeare in the Parking Lot stay and continue? We consider it a valuable part of the Lower East Side,’” said Clancy.

(Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Photo: Cassidy Dawn Graves)

Ultimately, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot and the Clemente reached an arrangement agreeable to both parties, rendering the need for space in Sara D. Roosevelt Park moot. Though the situation has opened up the possibility of hosting performances there next summer. For their part, the Clemente downplayed the notion of a dispute between them and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. Instead, Beckeld told Bedford + Bowery by email that he and his colleagues were “excited to welcome back” Shakespeare in the Parking Lot and were “proud to be the new home for this remarkable Lower East Side institution.”

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot will soldier on for this summer, albeit a week postponed from their original start date. Its performance of Hamlet, directed by Karla Hendrick and starring Jane Bradley as the titular character, will take place this Thursday, July 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Clemente’s parking lot (114 Norfolk Street between Delancey and Rivington). The free performances will run Thursday-Saturday through July 28. According to Clancy, under their present agreement with the Clemente, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot will be able to manage their own security through “qualified, capable veterans we have that are connected to our company,” pay a more modest space fee of $150 per weekend, and patrons and performers will be able to make use of the on-site restrooms. While the potential for further turmoil still exists–perhaps a dramatic fourth act in this Shakespearean saga—for now, there is peace.

As Shakespeare once famously penned: All’s Well That Ends Well…right?