While performing arts spaces in the region remain largely shuttered because of Covid-19, Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater said that it plans to build a permanent home, its first since the Long Island company was founded as a summer theater in 1991.
Executive Director Tracy Mitchell said in an interview Friday that the nonprofit organization intends to move to a lot cater-corner to the 299-seat venue it rents in the village. She declined to disclose terms of the agreement that an offshoot nonprofit, Friends of Bay Street and Sag Harbor Redevelopment, signed to acquire the property. It was listed for sale at $13.9 million.
The complex would include at least two theaters — a main stage and black box — enabling Bay Street to develop more plays and musicals. “If you have a second space, you can use that year-round to develop new work,” Mitchell said.
Situated in the storied bayside town that’s become a nexus for well-heeled patrons from around the Hamptons, Bay Street has attracted first-class actors and directors. Critically acclaimed revivals of the musicals Evita and Grey Gardens have been its bestselling productions of recent years, Mitchell said.
Before the shutdown, Artistic Director Scott Schwartz oversaw three full productions a summer, including at least one new play or musical. Bay Street also presents concerts, lectures and educational programs year-round, and a three-day new play festival in the spring. The theater has sought its own space for years, Mitchell said. “You either grow or you wither away. There really is no in-between.”
Mitchell noted that its current thrust stage, which is surrounded by the audience on three sides, lacks fly space for a crew to hoist scenery and other components onto and off the stage, limiting the productions it can mount. And with no crossover space, actors often run through the lobby to traverse the stage out of view of the audience.
“Would we like to be a tryout space for Broadway musicals?” she asked. “Of course.”
Bay Street pays about $300,000 annually in rent and other expenses for the current venue. The lease expires in May 2023, according to its audited financial statement. There’s also $48,000 in annual rent for a scene shop in Riverhead, about 27 miles west. The new site would consolidate operations in Sag Harbor. Mitchell wants to raise money for an endowment. A mortgage “is not the plan,” she said.
Bay Street’s lone Broadway transfer was a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler two decades ago, which was adapted by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and starred Kate Burton — the daughter of Bay Street co-founder Sybil Christopher and actor Richard Burton. Among its notable premieres was 1994’s Blue Light, the first play by novelist Cynthia Ozick, staged by film director Sidney Lumet and starring Dianne Wiest and Tony Award-winner Mercedes Ruehl. Ruehl would return to Bay Street, most recently in Alan Fox’s Safe Space in 2019, which was directed by Jack O’Brien, another Tony winner, and enhanced by producers Jeffrey Richards and Amy Pascal.
Mitchell said she doesn’t yet have a plan for funding an increased operating budget, currently at $4 million annually. “We won’t have a business plan until we know what we can fit into the building,” she said, adding that there could be space for a commercial restaurant.
Acquiring, building and maintaining theaters can be a financial burden for a performing arts organization — as well as a source of income. Pre-pandemic, subletting venues from one New York theater company to another was big business.
Mitchell is the treasurer of Friends of Bay Street, according to a registration statement filed with the state. The chairman is Adam Potter, an entrepreneur and Bay Street patron. He said in an interview that he got involved earlier this year after Mitchell approached him about joining the theater’s board.
Supporters are hopeful that a new complex will make the art form more appealing in the area. The Hamptons doesn’t have the theatergoing tradition of the Berkshires, where Williamstown Theatre Festival, Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group often develop shows with commercial potential. “The Hamptons is a little more social and dinner-partyish,” said Riki Kane Larimer, a commercial producer and Bay Street board member.
Larimer is optimistic about Bay Street’s prospects. “I’m so in love with theater. The more the better.”