The SummerStage makeover, shown in a rendering, began with the need for a canopy that could accommodate modern productions. (Courtesy City Parks Foundation)

Improvements at Rumsey Playfield prompt a fresh look at logistics to improve the overall experience for fans

Eighteen parks throughout New York City host concerts as part of City Parks Foundation’s SummerStage festival, but the series traces its roots to Central Park, where it made its debut at Naumburg Bandshell in 1986.

“SummerStage moved from the bandshell to Rumsey Playfield in 1990 and, although we’ve replaced the stage a couple times, the whole space itself had not been looked at holistically,” City Parks Foundation Executive Director Heather Lubov said.

Despite consistently top-tier programming, the venue itself has lagged behind modern standards. But that changes this summer, when Rumsey Playfield reopens its gates and greets fans with a contemporary look and feel.

Like many other venues built in the late ’80s and early ’90s — including Milwaukee’s American Family Insurance Amphitheater (see story, Page 50) — increasingly complex production requirements by artists to stage their shows precipitated a broader renovation.

At “16 or 17 years old,” the stage’s canopy “could not hold the weight of some of the productions that were coming through town that required more lights, more sound, etc.,” Lubov said. “We didn’t want to have to turn anybody away. We had come close, but we were able to work with the artist and pare down their production — but that’s not really what we want to do.”

City Parks logically decided replacements were due for the stage and its canopy. But crucially, Lubov said the organization also determined that “it would really be a good time to look at the venue as a whole — because that hadn’t been done, probably ever — and really think about how people move through the space and how people use the space.”

In a happy coincidence, a City Parks design competition to head up the project landed on FTL Design Engineering Studio, the firm run by “expert in outdoor concert venues” Nic Goldsmith that had designed the current canopy nearly 20 years earlier. Matt Hilyard is the project architect.

Goldsmith’s renovation concept sought to boost production capabilities but, just as important, it created solutions to solve several logistical inefficiencies that complicated the guest experience, including fire lanes in the middle of the venue and the sound tent’s location in the middle of the field, both of which obstructed prime audience real estate.

“What Nic did is design it more like a coliseum or a stadium,” Lubov said. “If you think about going to Citi Field or something, the seats are on the inside, but all the passageways to the restrooms, to the concessions are on the outside. That’s basically what we’ve done. We’ve pushed concessions and anything that’s happening to the outside, and the experience of watching the show will be uninterrupted.”

Rumsey Playfield’s more open aesthetic includes newly accessible cobblestone paths and bleachers that are pushed back slightly and raised 3 feet, adding space and improving sightlines for seated guests. Evening shows will take on another dimension, too, because the venue added landscape lighting. “As you’re in the space, you’re going to see the trees around you and it’s just going to feel amazing,” Lubov said.

Naturally, City Parks also took the opportunity to bolster the technology at the disposal of SummerStage performers, working with experts to install new LED screens, a high-tech D&B Audiotechnik loudspeaker system, and revamped production lighting.

The whole project carries the relatively inexpensive price tag of $5.5 million: $3 million from the city and $2.5 million from private individuals and foundations.

“Our primary problem of having to possibly turn away artists is no longer an issue, because the canopy is bigger and it can bear more weight,” Lubov said. “Even though our festival is primarily free for the public, we need to be just as competitive as any other venue in the city because we need to attract artists just like anybody else does. I want to make sure that we are just as competitive and just as exciting a space as any other concert venue in the city, indoors or outdoors.”