NEW YORK — Liev Schreiber will never forget the beautiful white bird that showed up mysteriously during a performance of "Othello."

It was the summer of 1991 and he was in the seats of the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, watching Raul Julia in the title role. He remembers seeing an egret or a crane appear a few minutes after Desdemona's death scene, its long wings flapping slowly into the dusk.

It was, Schreiber says, one of his all-time "seminal theatrical moments."

"You couldn't have asked for anything better. It was one of those moments where you thought magic was really occurring onstage," says the actor, who found himself four summers later on the very same stage, making his park debut in "The Tempest."

Addicted, he returned in 1998 for a production of "Cymbeline," then as Iago in his own production of "Othello" in 2001, and then the lead kings in both "Henry V" in 2003 and "Macbeth" in 2006.

While that white bird never reappeared, another creature has grown fond of the actor over the years. "I am haunted by a very, very rude raccoon who, every time I do a play at the Delacorte, likes to come onstage with me," he says with a laugh.

"I can't imagine life without the Delacorte. I really can't."

He's not alone.

`THE HAPPIEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE'

This summer, The Public Theater is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Delacorte, home of its free Shakespeare in the Park program – a beloved staple for both actors and audience. It's the place where you can hear a line like "My stars shine darkly over me," delivered by an actor by moonlight.

The Delacorte opened in Central Park on June 18, 1962, with "The Merchant of Venice" starring George C. Scott. Since then, there have been more than 150 productions, usually two each summer, featuring stars such as James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Anne Hathaway. More than 5 million people have attended over the five decades.

The actors and the crowds keep coming back, despite rain, mosquitoes, pesky raccoons, car alarms or even low-flying planes. There is something magical about it all. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director, thinks he knows what that is.

"Those bugs and those helicopters, as annoying as they are, are actually making a statement: Theater isn't supposed to be cut off from life," he says. "Theater is supposed to be at the center of the city. It's not supposed to be in a dead, quiet cloistered little hall where the city doesn't get into."

The Public's original mission for the Delacorte – to reach people who don't know they want to see Shakespeare – has been wildly successful. Too much so, given the crowds that descend on the theater.

"At the beginning, that was at the core: Surprise people by Shakespeare's power and relevance to their lives," says Eustis. "Now, of course, you have to be firmly convinced of that to wait in line for 12 hours."

Eustis has run the Public since 2005 and has seen many memorable things at the Delacorte, including Streep and the cast of "Mother Courage and Her Children" wrapping up their microphones to keep performing during a rainstorm.

His own personal highlight came four years ago when "Hair" was onstage and he was celebrating his 50th birthday. At one point, the cast came down into the seats, picked him up and led the audience in singing "Happy Birthday."

"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he says, laughing. "The only problem with it is that it was the happiest moment of my life and I know I will never be happier."

`IT WAS INCREDIBLE'

Jonathan Groff was in that company of "Hair," but has a different unforgettable memory. It was threatening rain on opening night, but the cast managed to stay dry until the final scene.

Groff, the Tony-nominated star of "Spring Awakening," was playing Claude. The show ends with Claude's corpse lying on an American flag, having been killed in Vietnam. The rest of the cast files out, leaving Claude alone, face-up.

"As the music was going out, I could feel drip, drip, DRIP on my forehead and my hand. I was like, `Uh, oh,'" Groff recalls.

After the curtain call, the show ends with a massive dance party in which the audience is invited onstage to boogie with the cast while belting out "Let the Sun Shine In."

"Almost on cue, the clouds opened up and torrential rain pours down during the dance party. Everyone – the audience included – was onstage, jumping up and down, soaking wet, singing `Let the Sun Shine In.' It was incredible," he says.

"And then, again almost as if on cue, the music stopped, the rain stopped, the stars came out and we had our opening night party on the top of Belvedere Castle as planned. It was as if something aligned in the universe for that performance. It was one of the most magical nights I've ever had in the theater."

Groff returned the next summer for "The Bacchae" and wants to come back. "I would go back every summer, for both shows, for the rest of my life if I could," he says. One reason is the audience itself.

"If you're seeing something at the Delacorte, it is because through blood, sweat and tears they've gotten a pair of tickets," he says. "You can feel it when you're acting onstage there. It's palpable."

`RIGHT OFF THE STREET'

The Delacorte may be a jewel, but the city around it hasn't always been so pretty. Just ask Sam Waterston, the former "Law & Order" prosecutor who has played 10 shows at the Delacorte, including his acting breakthrough in 1972 as Benedict in "Much Ado About Nothing."

He recalls playing the Danish prince in "Hamlet" in the summer of 1975, an era in New York that was much grittier than today. Central Park was not a place to hang around in at night. It was downright scary.

After one show that summer, Waterston was late gathering his things and leaving the theater.

"Most everybody had gone home, including all the audience. The place was empty. But there was a guy standing in the shadows, a really big guy. I thought he was waiting to mug me," Waterston says. "I didn't know what to do, so I thought I'd brave it and started to walk out. Out of the darkness, comes this great voice."

"You played Hamlet?" the hulking man asked Waterston.

Waterston said yes.

"He said, `Man, that was right off the street,'" the actor recalls.

It was pretty much the best compliment you could get in 1975.

"I thought, `The New York Times can't beat that.'"

`TREMENDOUSLY BIG EXPERIENCE'

Lily Rabe, who played Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" in the park opposite Al Pacino in the summer of 2010, is another repeat performer. She's currently back, playing Rosalind in "As You Like It."

Asked why she returns, she points to a recent dinner break: The cast and crew were sprawled out on a lawn, reading, chatting and napping. There was a game of basketball going on and Peter Gabriel was playing on a stereo. The sun was out.

"You just feel as if your heart is going to burst out of your chest at all times, whether it's on a dinner break, or during rehearsal or your first preview or your last show. For me, it's just a tremendously big experience," she says.

Rabe, the daughter of Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe and Oscar-nominated actress Jill Clayburgh, attended park shows with her parents and saw many recent productions, including "Mother Courage," `'The Seagull," `'Romeo and Juliet" and "Twelfth Night."

"If I'm not on the stage then I want to be in the audience," she says.

She says there's something freeing for an actor about the unpredictable weather and audience. If it rains, it rains. If a plane's engine disrupts a quiet moment, there's nothing anyone can do.

"There is no tricking yourself into thinking that you have any control over what's going to happen and that, to me, is very relaxing because you sort of release your grip on everything," she says. "If any place is going to set you free, it's the park."

`FEEL THAT ENERGY'

Donna Murphy also has returned this summer, playing the Witch in the second show this season in the park, Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." Murphy is a two-time Tony Award-winning star now, but back in 1985 – her last time at the Delacorte – she was in the ensemble in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

"I'd look out and there would be this audience – they were excited, delighted to be exactly where they were, feeling lucky to be where they were," she recalls. "Before the show started, it was an event for them."

Murphy knows the feeling. Like them, she has lined up to see many shows at the Delacorte, eaten picnic meals washed down with a little vino, keeping her fingers crossed that the rain clouds stay away. "I knew what it felt like on the other side and how excited I was. You can just feel that energy and feed off of it."

Murphy is already planning a return to the Delacorte.

There's something of a nagging hole in her impressive resume, one which includes movies, stage and TV: She's actually never done Shakespeare and she wants to. And she knows where.

"This is where I want to do it for the first time," she says. "I want to do it at the Delacorte."

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Online:

http://www.shakespeareinthepark.org

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