Park Avenue Armory guide: Everything you need to know about the Upper East Side performance space
The venue used to be an actual armory, and it now plays host to all kinds of visual art shows and theatre.
Attention! If you want to break away from the traditional theatre experience and go to a whole new kind of venue, march on over to the Park Avenue Armory, nestled between 66th and 67th Streets on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Park Avenue Armory has undergone quite the transformation in 140 years, now that the building is owned by an arts organization of the same name. The 19th-century training center and arsenal is now a performance space/art museum/library, at different times or sometimes all at once depending on the event there at any given moment.
New takes on classic shows, North American premieres, multimedia events that combine performance with visual art, and all kinds of traditional performances like plays and music recitals have all occupied the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, the central room of the Armory. But even though the Armory's use has drastically changed since its construction, plenty of its history remains intact, including its elegant architecture and military memorabilia that recalls a museum in itself.
Go to a show at Park Avenue Armory, and you'll get to experience multiple kinds of art in one trip — and even more so if you make a day of it and visit one of the many museums in the neighborhood. Learn more about the Armory's history, nearby attractions and eateries, and history of shows so you know what to expect. But we can only do so much — the Armory and its shows defy expectations. You just have to see it for yourself.
Why you need to visit Park Avenue Armory in New York
Put simply, where else can you say you saw a show in the drill hall of a former Gilded Age military HQ? Though you'll sit in a seat and take in a show at the Armory like at any other venue, that's far from the only thing you'll do there. The lavishly decorated, museum-like building is a spectacle worth seeing, and the Park Avenue Armory arts organization makes use of all its many rooms as art exhibit spaces, lounges, reading rooms, and much more. Bask in the historic grandeur before taking in a show that's completely fresh, experimental, and/or reimagined.
Get to know the history of Park Avenue Armory
Park Avenue Armory isn't just an edgy name — the building has been around since 1880 and used to be an actual armory. Its official name is Seventh Regiment Armory, so named as the headquarters of the 7th New York Militia Regiment. This regiment was the first volunteer unit to respond to Abraham Lincoln's call for troops for the Civil War in 1861, and was known as the "Silk Stocking" regiment because many of its members were from the most important, wealthy families during the Gilded Age (yes, like the TV show). The military unit stored weapons at the Armory and trained in its central Wade Thompson Drill Hall, one of the largest unobstructed spaces in the city.
Go inside now, and you'll see massive portraits of military leaders, chain-mail curtains, and memorabilia like trophies and medals in the various rooms off the main foyer. Between these historic decorations and the design of the building — which features ornate woodwork, marbling, stained glass, chandeliers and more — stepping into the Park Avenue Armory feels like entering a grand, old-fashioned mansion.
It's known as Park Avenue Armory, by the way, because... it's on Park Avenue. But Park Avenue Armory is also the name of the arts organization that later took the venue over and converted it into a space for alternative theatre and all types of performances, from concerts to plays to multimedia exhibits. Most performances take place in the drill hall, which you might not even recognize as one if you didn't know. Each show's unique set completely transforms the massive space.
The other rooms off the foyer, too, are sometimes used as lounges, exhibit spaces, and cafes to accompany the shows. Grab a pre-show drink on a couch beneath a portrait of a general, or do some light reading in the library, as there are sometimes show-related books left out for audiences to flip through. Go early to explore the premises and see all the Armory has to offer. There's certainly no other venue like it.
All the famous productions at Park Avenue Armory
The Park Avenue Armory has become known for its daring pieces of new theatre and new takes on classic plays that you only thought you knew. Actually, many of its shows mix both of these traits and are often transfers of popular London productions. The possibilities for theatre here are endless, and here are some of the major productions that have played this equally versatile venue.
- The Lehman Trilogy: You might recognize the Park Avenue Armory as the place where The Lehman Trilogy played before going to Broadway. Director Sam Mendes's production of this epic three-part play, about the 100-year history of the Lehman Brothers as performed by three actors, made its North American premiere in the drill hall in 2019 after playing to acclaim in London. That show sold out the Armory, went to Broadway in 2021 and received praise there, and is coming to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2022.
- The Hairy Ape: The 1922 Eugene O'Neill play is about a laborer looking for his place in a world controlled by the rich. Bobby Cannavale led a 2017 production at the Armory, winning an Obie Award, and the show earned eight Drama Desk nominations.
- Macbeth: Kenneth Branagh starred in a near-immersive adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy. The drill hall was transformed into a Scottish heath-turned-warzone, which feels rather fitting for the venue.
- Antigone: An Antigone adaptation set in a lake played here. Yes, the actors performed in a shallow pool of water! The production was also done in Japanese with English supertitles, and most of the principal characters were embodied by two actors: one to speak the lines, and one to perform the movement.
Fun things to do before a show at Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side
The Upper East Side is a hub for all kinds of culture, so live your best Gossip Girl life and make a day of exploring the neighborhood. You don't just have to arrive in time for the show and then leave; going to the Park Avenue Armory is a great excuse to check out all the UES has to offer. The blocks around the Armory in particular are home to tons of museums, shops, and more, so you can plan a culture-filled day from beginning to end.
- Society of Illustrators: If you want to check out some drawings before seeing your show, go two blocks south of the Armory to this trendy art museum showcasing all types of illustrations. You can even catch a live drawing session there or grab a pre-show bite at the museum's onsite cafe, 128 Bar and Bistro.
- Asia Society and Museum: Head three blocks north of the Armory to see a rotating lineup of Asian art exhibits in all kinds of styles. You can also plan your visit to see a talk with an Asian artist, or get brunch or lunch at the Garden Court Café there.
- The Bernard Museum: This Jewish history museum is housed inside the world's largest synagogue.
- The Frick Collection: This famous New York institution displays Western European art inside a private mansion-turned-museum. Until 2023, the collections are being housed at the Frick Madison on 75th Street, but at only eight blocks up from the Armory, it's still easy to get to before a show.
- Shopping: If you want to do some shopping (or window shopping) instead, plenty of famous designer shops like Chanel and Hermès line the nearby Madison Avenue.
Where to eat and drink before a show at Park Avenue Armory
The easiest way to get pre-show drinks before a show here is by going right to the Armory! The concessions stand offers wine, beer, and hard liquor for cocktails, as well as soda and water. There is also a small selection of snacks if you want a little something to eat. Discover other theatres with in-house bars and restaurants.
However, if you want to grab a full meal before or after a Park Avenue Armory show, check out these restaurants in the area.
- The East Pole: For a dining experience that's as unique as the Armory, check out this farm-to-table eatery inside a historic Upper East Side brownstone on 65th Street.
- Alice's Tea Cup, Chapter 2: At this whimsical Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurant on 64th Street, you can have a bonafide tea party with scones and brunch food.
- French food: French food fans can check out Match 65 Brasserie and Daniel, both on 65th Street within a block of the Armory.
- Bar Italia: If you prefer Italian food, walk one block further to Madison and 66th for some fresh pasta.
- Casual fare: If you want a full meal that's not too fancy, there's a Le Pain Quotidien and Chipotle nearby.
Get tickets to see a show at Park Avenue Armory
This season, Park Avenue Armory is presenting daring new adaptations of two classic plays in repertory: Shakespeare's Hamlet and Aeschylus's Oresteia. Robert Icke adapted and directs the two shows, both of which ran to acclaim in London's West End.
Park Avenue Armory is where history meets modernity in the arts, and no matter what show you see there, you're guaranteed to have an experience that's unlike anything you've ever had at a theatre.
Photo credit: James Ewing
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