June 1 marks the beginning of SummerStage, New York City’s free music and arts festival. This year the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary with an impressive calendar of events in Central Park and other locations all around the city. We’ll be covering a number of the SummerStage events over the next few months, and we’ll also be giving away some guaranteed-entry/quicker-line tickets to select performances every week, courtesy of City Parks Foundation’s SummerStage.
To learn more about the festival history and operation we spoke with David Rivel, Executive Director of City Parks Foundation.
THIRTEEN: Can you talk about City Parks Foundation and what it does?
David Rivel: City Parks Foundation is the organization that produces SummerStage, but we also do lots of other stuff. We do free sports programs for kids. We have education programs for school groups. We help get involved in neighborhood parks in a productive way, but the arts and culture programs that we do are the biggest part of the organization and probably the most famous and well-attended.
T: When was the foundation founded?
DR: City Parks Foundation was founded in 1989.
T: So when did SummerStage start?
DR: SummerStage started in 1986. So you’re saying to yourself, “Well how is it that SummerStage is older than City Parks Foundation?” and that’s because SummerStage was founded by the Central Park Conservancy, which is a not-for-profit organization that works to maintain Central Park. After seven or eight years of running Central Park SummerStage they decided it didn’t really fit into their mission anymore. The program was getting larger and more logistically difficult for them to produce. So it made sense for City Parks Foundation, which is a large, producing organization, to take over the program. We officially took over in 1994.
T: So we thought it was all at Central Park, but there are event listings for all over the city…
DR: The series started in Central Park, but we started doing programming in other parks all around the city. We started a concert series in parks around the cities in 1990. We started a dance program in parks in 2005, and the same year we started a theater program, and those other programs all had different names. We had “City Parks Concerts,” “City Parks Dance,” and “City Parks Theater,” and what we’ve decided to do for this year is to rebrand all of our arts activity under the single brand of SummerStage. That gives New Yorkers one festival which takes place in 17 parks including Central Park but also other parks in neighborhoods around the city with music, dance, theater, and a variety of programming. So it’s just bigger and better than ever before, and it made sense to do that for our 25th annivesary.
T: How is the festival curated?
DR: So the department works individually and also as a team to see as much stuff as they can. We go to international festivals. We go to important festivals in this country like South by Southwest. It takes about a year to program everything. We’re already starting to program next summer, for example. Some things have been in the works even longer than that. Some works that we’ve commissioned, and we have a couple this year, can take more than a year. For some of the bigger acts — like we have two free performances from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in July — those conversations have been going on for three or four years actually.
T: And so these are mostly free shows, except for a few benefits?
DR: Everything we do is free. All of our sports programs are free. All of our educational programs are free. There are six shows that have a ticket price. The proceeds from those help us pay for the free shows, but we put on 1200 performances a year, so the number of paid ticketed events is dwarfed by the number of free events that we’re doing.
T: So how is it all funded?
DR: We raise money privately. We have a presenting sponsor this year, MasterCard. We have subsidiary sponsors. JetBlue is our official airline, Manhattan Beer Distributor is our official beer sponsor, City Winery is our wine sponsor, so we put it together with corporate sponsorship and some money from the benefit shows. We also have some food, beverage, and merchandise concessions — we get a little bit of money that way. The rest we raise from foundations, from individuals. It’s a big job. It costs about 5.9 million dollars to put on SummerStage, and we work, just as the programming staff works for a year to put the program together. Everybody else in the organization — the development staff, me, the board of directors — works about a year to put the funding together.
T: Can you tell us about the pieces that have been commissioned?
DR: Our commission is a theater piece called “American Schemes.” It’s written by an emerging playwright Radha Blank, whom we’ve known about for a couple of years and have been trying to work with. We commissioned a piece last year also, a theater piece from a different emerging playwright named Chisa Hutchinson, and what’s great is that they know when they write the piece that it’s going to be performed outdoors in a park. So Chisa’s piece last year, which was called “Dirt Rich,” was about a bunch of kids who discovered some money buried in their playground, the complications that ensue from that discovery, and the dynamic among the kids. It was a great play, but what was particularly interesting about it was of course that it took place in a park, next to a playground, as the performance was playing out. So you get these layers of meaning. So when we commission theater pieces we’re specifically commissioning works that we know are going to play particularly well outdoors. Now I haven’t seen “American Schemes” yet. The rehearsals are only starting next week. The first performances are in July, so I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure Radha’s done a piece that will particularly resonate outdoors.
T: What other performances are you looking forward to?
DR: Some of the other performances that are notable? Well, we can start with the start of the season. The start of the season is June 1. We have two performances that day, one in Red Hook Park, which is a park in Brooklyn, featuring Jay Electronica, who is a contemporary hip-hop artist. Hip-hop is one of our several themes of the season. The other show we have that day on June 1 is Melody Gardot with the New York Pops orchestra, and that’s at the Mainstage in Central Park. So those two shows together kind of give you a sense of the artistic diversity as well as the geographic diversity of the series.
We end SummerStage at the end of August, on August 28 and August 29, with the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. Jazz and in particular bebop are another theme of the season. We have McCoy Tyner, James Moody, Vijay Iyer, and a bunch of other people celebrating the music of Charlie Parker and doing it in parks — one where he lived, Thompskins Square Park in Manhattan, which is basically right next to the street he lived on when he lived in New York City, and then the other day of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival is in Harlem at Marcus Garvey Park, where of course Charlie played when he was here in New York.
So we’re trying to highlight New York City artists, art forms that were developed in New York City, trying to play music, present dance, and present theater that will resonate with the various communities that live in New York City, and to do that in the very neighborhood parks that are important to communities around the city. So SummerStage is really the New York City festival, and that’s what we’re really celebrating.
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Click here to see the entire SummerStage schedule. Check back for reviews of SummerStage events, event previews with interviews, and more information on the guaranteed entry tickets.