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Cars, fights and gross things - Shakespeare in the Parking Lot endures, despite new city snag

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Acting in one of Shakespeare's plays is difficult enough without having to dodge a 3,600-pound SUV.

That's just one of the challenges facing the cast performing "Richard III" this summer in a working outdoor municipal parking lot at the corner of Ludlow and Broome streets in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

There also are joggers, bikers and dog walkers, lost tourists and the drug-addled. There are sirens, bugs and car alarms, and the smells from a nearby French-Cuban restaurant. And, of course, cars zipping in and out.

"This is not easy. If it was, nobody would come and watch," says Hamilton Clancy, the producing artistic director of The Drilling Company, which for years has staged the downtown shows.

"The beauty of the parking lot is that people come and go, stay for five minutes or an hour, and they all get an introduction to the Bard that they wouldn't ordinarily."

The tradition dates back 17 years and was inherited by The Drilling Company, which relies on word-of-mouth and the element of surprise to attract an audience. All performances are free.

"The only thing I ever ask is I put out a hat at the end of the show and we say, 'If you've got something to throw in, it's much appreciated,'" says Clancy, who is directing "Richard III" through Aug. 17.

The bare-boned but enthusiastic summer productions have as many as 77 plastic chairs that are placed in rows around a section of concrete that acts as the stage. If a car needs to get in or out, the actors pause and the patrons pick up their seats and make room.

"People just come, chairs get moved back, blankets get put out," Clancy says.

As night falls, car headlights become spotlights and street lamps switch on with a buzz, adding something thrilling to the gritty neighbourhood. Some 225 people showed up for a performance of "Cymbeline" earlier this sweltering summer.

But the challenges of putting on a show have gotten harder, thanks to the city. Until now, authorities had allowed the 25-member company to perform relatively unhassled, but a municipal rule change now requires it to pay for eight parking spots per night and also get additional insurance.

Total bill this summer: $2,400.

"For a small operation that's operating off the bucket, a $2,400 hit is no small hit, right?" asks Clancy, who seems more bemused than bitter. The Drilling Company's entire yearly budget is less than $16,000. "Isn't it crazy? This is a civic thing."

He's appealed for help, and although he's had some verbal support from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, no relief so far. Still, the company won't stop cars from parking in their eight designated spots — they're unwilling to anger residents — but won't consider charging audience members.

"I've always believed the way we did it was the best way to do it," Clancy says. "That way it honours the community that wants to park just as much as it honours the community of people just watching the show. Once the city says, 'Well, you have to pay for it,' then we have to start charging and that's not right."

The parking-lot show tradition feeds Clancy's mission of trying to expose as many people as possible to Shakespeare's genius. Unlike the self-selecting patrons of free Shakespeare plays in Central Park, audience members in the parking lot have often been doing something else when they stumble across the show.

"It's just about as communal an area as you're ever going to get," Clancy says before going off to explain to a confused-looking woman what was going on. "There's no socio-economic division in a parking lot."

The company picks two Shakespeare plays each summer and this year cleverly chose "Richard III" after the skeleton of the real British king was found earlier this year beneath a parking lot in the central England city of Leicester.

Stepping into the title role is Alessandro Colla, a veteran of six parking-lot shows who helped break up a drunken fight while doing "The Tempest" on his first day at the lot years ago.

"Not everyone who comes through here is friendly," he says with a laugh during a recent rehearsal, fittingly in a "Grand Theft Auto" T-shirt. The trick, he says, isn't to tune out the distractions but to use them. "Surviving one of these makes you feel like you have armour."

Clancy has his own horror story of showing up one day to find that their set had been used as a bathroom. "That was when my leadership was tested because obviously no one wanted to touch it. I said, 'Someone get the rubber gloves. I'm going in!'" he says.

Despite the cars, fights and poo, the company vows to keep going and won't abandon its makeshift stage for another neighbourhood. Clancy sees it fitting that the plays are staged on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for years the teeming home for so many immigrants.

"I see Shakespeare as being one of the great witnesses of humanity. So when we do Shakespeare in the parking lot on the Lower East Side, we're combining these two tremendous forces."

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