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Summer hasn’t begun until you spot crowds of eager New Yorkers lined up at sunset for a performance or film screening in Midtown’s verdant jewelbox, Bryant Park — and this year’s lineup of free performances through the summer series, Bryant Park Picnic Performances presented by Bank of America has something for everyone.

Joe’s Pub presents a performance with Mykal Kilgore at Bryant Park. Photo: Chris Lee

There will be 26 live music, dance, and theater events starting at 7pm between May and September at the intersection of W42nd Street and 6th Avenue, showcasing everything from New York City Opera’s The Barber of Seville, to split-bill dance performances across classical, contemporary, tap, and hip-hop genres, and concerts from Joe’s Pub, Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra and many more. 

In addition to live, outdoor performances perfect for an evening of culture and dinner al fresco (Bryant Park even provides free picnic blankets to make it easy!), the organization will livestream more than 20 of the performances on the park’s YouTube and social media channels for socially and geographically-distanced viewers. This year’s season also marks the 30th anniversary of Bryant Park’s extensive redesign and reopening. 

W42ST caught up with Dan Fishman, Director of Public Events at Bryant Park, series dance Programming Curator Tiffany Rea-Fisher and New York City Opera’s Executive Director Michael Capasso to find out more about their passion for the cherished summer series. 

Fishman is in his ninth summer as a member of the organization, “I started as a temporary summer program coordinator — basically, a glorified intern.” he recalls. Working for the events department at Bryant Park was his first job out of college but in Fishman’s near-decade of service to the park he has seen the free public arts programming expand its audience. 

“We’ve been able to grow this to something that is on a much bigger scale for New York City,” he said. “A lot of that has been due to the partnerships that we’ve made with cultural organizations in the city, that allow Bryant Park to be a platform for them — to showcase some of the best artists in the city. 

“When I started, we had no stage in the park. It was all little pop-up events — now, we have a fully covered stage with sound design and lighting design and we’re able to host, as we did last year, the New York Philharmonic,” he said. “It’s totally different from when I started.” 

The New York Philharmonic performs at Bryant Park last summer. Photo: Ryan Muir

Dance programming head Rea-Fisher remembers the early days of the park’s performances, when she found herself unexpectedly pulled into the spotlight. “I got involved in Bryant Park a little over 10 years ago. The dance company that I run (Emerge125) — then called Lisa Monte Dance — was performing in the fall festival,” she recalled. “The MC had fallen ill and the person running the performances asked if I could step in. I said, ‘Sure, why not — I know the rep.’ So I MC-ed that show.  I guess the organizers liked what I was doing, because they started following my career.” 

She added: “And when they were looking to bring back dance at the park and asked me, ‘Would you be interested in curating two weekends of performances at Bryant Park?’ We gave it a stab and it was really amazing. 

“We had a very small, very modest stage with audiences averaging between 150, maybe 300 people, which was a big deal. And now I’ve been curating consistently for the last eight years, where we now average audiences of 1,500 to 2,000, which is incredible.”

Young Stars of Jazz on stage at Bryant Park. Photo: Ryan Muir

Executive Director of New York City Opera Capasso explained that his organization’s involvement goes back as far as two administrations ago. “The collaboration ceased, and then in 2016 when I took over the company, I reinstated the park performances — which I think are an extremely important part of our mission,” he said. “Performing publicly is central to what we do as the New York City Opera —  after all, we were called ‘The People’s Opera’ by Fiorello LaGuardia himself.” 

Their picnic performance programming focuses on well-known, popular hits  — “very mainstream and very popular pieces that will likely gather the largest crowds,” he said. “Sometimes we do new, unusual, and edgy repertoire throughout the course of the year, but that wouldn’t necessarily have the same appeal for 5,000 people walking by the park —  whereas The Barber of Seville and La Traviata do. These are mainstream titles with lots of hit tunes that are meant to be unabashedly crowd pleasing.” 

Rea-Fisher’s concept for the year’s programming has changed — the restraints of COVID and the intent to re-engage passersby have shifted her programming strategy. “When we first started this pre-pandemic I always made sure to have a student group, an emerging group, a mid-tier group, and a closer,” she said. “When we came back in 2021, with the COVID protocols, we just could not have as many people — so we decided to do split bills across the board.” 

Dancers at a Carnegie Hall performance at Bryant Park. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

As a choreographer and creator, Rea-Fisher acknowledges that creating and curating are very different. “In the park, you’re competing with a lot — quiet, soft pieces don’t compete well,” she said. 

“You want something that is not always at a 10, but you also want bodies moving. You want excitement, you want enough. We always take time to speak to the artists and give them a chance to say, ‘What do you want the audience to know about your work so that no one’s coming in blind?’  So that people who are not familiar with dance feel comfortable, and also so that people who have been following this artist forever feel comfortable and have a way to approach the work,” she added.  

Audiences interested in observing works in progress will also be in luck, as Rea-Fisher has curated several Open Rehearsal Residencies to offer valuable space to dance companies and also give audiences a window into the creative process. “We are looking for ways to support the community outside of performing in the festival as well,” she said. 

The Town Hall Cenntenial Concert last summer at Bryant Park. Photo: Ryan Muir

Support and collaboration have been the key tenets to the series’ survival through the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. Fishman said that sponsoring partner Bank of America “has been as great a neighbor as possible. They’re big cultural supporters in the city and they really provide the funding for us to take each next step. They still supported us in 2020 when we weren’t able to have a season in the same way. Both before and during the pandemic, they’ve gone above and beyond to make sure we succeed.”

He revealed that despite the challenges COVID created, the pandemic created a turning point year for the organization. “A lot of our biggest partnerships happened for the first time last summer and many of them were able to continue this year — because a lot of those partners saw the benefit of what a Bryant Park show can do for them, the size of audience, and the new audiences that they can reach through us,” he said. 

Capasso credits Fishman with much of the program’s resilience: “Dan is fantastic — he has expanded and improved the whole park experience by so much. He’s a great guy and he’s done a great job, and I’m not saying that because he brings us in,” he laughed, adding that Fishman and the Bryant Park team’s innovative live streaming of performances has significantly grown New York City Opera’s audience base. “It brings in more people — and the more people that see the opera, that’s what we are striving for. We get people that sign up for our mailing list and see our season, all because they saw us in the park.” 

He added: “For us, it’s all about bringing the opera to the people of New York —  and in many cases, it’s people who would not normally go to the opera. They stop by and they go, ‘Wow, this is, you know, not painful. I didn’t die because I sat through an opera,’” he laughed.  “It’s actually pretty cool, and that’s what we strive for. And it does definitely help us expand our audiences in the theater as well.” 

Live streaming also has an important part to play, added Fishman, “Video is going to be something that we want to move forward with in the longer term. I think streaming will spur regional tourism — last year, our YouTube audience was more than 50% international.” 

All three were hopeful that the enthusiastic public response to the park’s return to programming would signal the beginning of an even more ambitious and impactful chapter for Bryant Park and New York City cultural institutions.  

“It’s been a really fun journey, and it’s allowed me to connect and meet artists that I’ve known and heard about for years, but have not been able to program,” said Rea-Fisher. “I think this year will open up what we feel can happen in this space, and give audiences something new and different.” 

Young Stars of Jazz on stage at Bryant Park. Photo: Ryan Muir

“What makes Bryant Park so unique,” said Capasso, “ is that you can be walking down the street and hear something and then just wander in and see it. Whereas the programming in Central Park, while extraordinary, is deep within the park — you can’t just stumble upon it as a pedestrian. Because of Bryant Park’s location and its openness to the rest of the city, it does bring in more than just a destination crowd.”

Reflected Fishman, “I really hope we can keep the momentum going — making Bryant Park a hub to see the best of New York City arts.” 

WHAT YOU CAN SEE AT BRYANT PARK THIS SUMMER (all start at 7pm)

May/June

May 27: New York City Opera: The Barber of Seville
June 3: Contemporary Dance: Athomasproject
June 4: Contemporary Dance: Ariel Rivka Dance and The Missing Element
June 10: Contemporary Dance: EMERGE125 and Ayodele Casel
June 11: Contemporary Dance: Ballet Hispánico’s Social Latin Dance Class and Music From the Sole
June 17: New York City Opera: Pride in the Park
June 24: Emerging Music Festival curated by Ad Hoc
June 25: Emerging Music Festival curated by Ad Hoc

July

July 1: Carnegie Hall Citywide: Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble
July 8: Carnegie Hall Citywide: The Baylor Project
July 15: Carnegie Hall Citywide: Squirrel Nut Zippers
July 22: Carnegie Hall Citywide: The Broadway Sinfonietta
July 23: Jazzmobile: Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band
July 28: Artist TBA
July 29: Carnegie Hall Citywide: Artist TBA

August

August 5: Artist TBA
August 12: New York City Opera: La Traviata
August 19: Asian American Arts Alliance: Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang
August 26: Habibi Festival with Joe’s Pub: Esraa Warda, Firas Zreik, Yacine Boulares, and AJOYO
August 29: The Town Hall: Eighth Blackbird Celebrates John Cage

September

September 2: New York City Opera: Lucia di Lammermoor
September 8: Steinway Artists Aaron Diehl and Orrin Evans
September 9: Classical Theatre of Harlem
September 16: Accordion Festival: Heart of Afghanistan and More
September 17: American Symphony Orchestra

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