For a long time after the Sept. 11 attacks, Cantor Fitzgerald curtailed corporate outings. When I arrived as a lawyer in 2002, things were still too raw, busy and fraught. But in 2003, our longtime outside lawyer invited our general counsel, my boss, to attend an event. He picked “Henry V” at Shakespeare in the Park. (I was always charmed by that decision. He could have gone to the U.S. Open, but he chose a free play.)
The next year, those two lawyers invited their legal staffs. I organized 20 boxed dinners under a Central Park oak and smuggled in wine. And over the years I have somehow ended up producer and chief cheerleader for what has become our annual Shakespeare in the Park picnic.
I hailed from the South, so I was good with food, drink and herding. Maybe sprites and faeries conjured up the role from youthful hours spent watching my father’s community theater rehearsals in our hometown, Anchorage, Ky.
I started crafting silly invitations quoting the Bard. Soon we included the accounting, tax and human resources departments, and a few investment bankers. Let the record reflect that we always had a park permit.
Over the years, the picnic grew. To an outsider, it appeared a routine summer outing. But it wasn’t. Those who attended for years saw evidence of Cantor’s renewal, perseverance and support of culture in a city that embraced us during our darkest hour. These growing gatherings felt magical and miraculous. For others, our spot near King Jagiello was just a lovely party venue.
In 2008, we had to decide between the season’s two shows, “Hair” and “Hamlet.” Who could manage that? Cantor became a corporate supporter for both shows beginning that year. We allowed plus ones. Some co-workers or guests attended their first Shakespeare play. Many, like me, brought our children.
Box dinners were swapped for a Mexican restaurant searing chicken tinga under that same tree. Later, expert caterers toted chafing dishes of quesadillas, flatbreads and vegan meals.
But the provisioners refused to flout park rules and bring booze. My household had lower standards. Since 2004, my husband has squeezed hundreds of limes into midsummer margaritas in our Brooklyn kitchen the night before the event.
Cantor’s chairman and his sister always attended. Ditto that outside lawyer, now retired. We worried constantly about rain. I bagged leftover s’mores, brownies and churros and passed them around at intermission — just like my grandmother Mae in Louisville.
Despite weeks of counting, we often had leftover sponsor seats. Some colleagues preferred to keep picnicking. Their tickets in hand, I headed to the Delacorte Theater for my favorite part of the evening — sharing our bounty with strangers.
Before the show, I scouted for targets. I could usually spot a serious theater lover on a bench soaking up the preshow bustle. I was partial to older couples. Maybe I was searching for my parents, now gone. But I tried to be democratic, sometimes selecting tourists, teenagers or families with children.
To persuade those unfamiliar with Shakespeare in the Park to attend, I occasionally name-dropped the boldface stars playing workaday roles, unfazed by the rigor, mosquitoes and humidity. The recipients’ gratitude enchanted me. I dropped any remaining seats at the standby line.
The Public’s stagings, often modern and relevant, have stuck with me — especially now. Marches outside my Brooklyn windows reminded me of last year’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” set in an Atlanta suburb with an all-Black cast. Police helicopters and tactical gear invoked 2016’s militaristic rendition of “Troilus and Cressida.” The nightly news conjured 2017’s politicized “Julius Caesar,” interrupted by flag-draped protesters.
About 100 of us planned to attend “Richard II” and “As You Like It” this summer, before the pandemic upended Shakespeare, too. Alas, I really needed a frolic. Let me warm up my glue gun and craft flower headdresses as I did before “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Paging Jonathan Groff to hand me a daisy as he did during “Hair.”
I will most miss the moment when the sky turns amber and the ushers issue last call. That’s when I would stop organizing and glide into my familiar seat. The atmosphere would be electric as I waited for a tempest to brew or lovers to spat. Then — there — lights would flood the set at a theater in Central Park, where this Kentucky girl always felt like a New Yorker. And where a New York company came to feel a little more whole.
How now, oh Public Theater? Good morrow. Ho, we will see you hence.
Caroline Koster is a New York City lawyer. She is writing a book about finding common ground, recipes and lessons from her Appalachian family reunion.