Last fall, when the country’s economy was taking one massive hit after another, the leadership at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor agreed on a belt-tightening strategy intended to take them through the tough times ahead.
“We did such good work last fall,” recalled general manager Tracy Mitchell, who spoke last week of the measures taken to assure financial stability at the theater—and of their disappointing results.
“We cut the budget 25 percent,” she went on, eliminating “job fluff” and paring down to the “five of us who run the place.”
Ms. Mitchell was following up on an urgent public appeal for support that is currently reaching the mailboxes and in-boxes of potential contributors throughout the region. The appeal notes that Bay Street has “never engaged in a public appeal like this before” and goes on to stress that the unprecedented step was dictated by the gravity of the situation.
Overcoming a reluctance to importune, the signers warn that “to keep the doors of Bay Street open and continue our tradition of performing arts excellence to Eastern Long Island, we need your help.”
Clearly, the impact of the recession on the 2008-09 season was even greater than anyone at Bay Street had anticipated.
“We were down by 25 to 30 percent on every single line item,” said Ms. Mitchell, “ticket sales, fund-raising, grants, individual donations, foundations.”
That everything was down was in a way reassuring, Ms. Mitchell suggested, since the wholesale drop obviously reflected the general economic distress rather than any lapse in the quality or creativity of Bay Street’s productions and programs.
The theater’s August production of “Dames at Sea,” for example, received “great reviews” said Ms. Mitchell. She pointed out that Newsday, the local newspapers and even John Simon, “who never says anything good about anything” had praised the production.
Yet, despite the good press, “We just couldn’t get bodies in,” lamented Ms. Mitchell. Even when Target, a loyal corporate supporter, rode to the rescue, sponsoring twofers on tickets as part of its mission to encourage family participation, “we had half-empty houses,” she said.
Not even the star power of Mercedes Ruehl, who appeared earlier in the summer in “Dinner,” managed to loosen the purse strings of those who Ms. Mitchell believes would have filled the 299-seat house in better times.
“We couldn’t sell it out,” said Ms. Mitchell. “In any other season, normally the minute the press hits, you get the bump, especially with Mercedes Ruehl. We knew the giving would be down, but this really came as more of a shock.”
Like Murphy Davis, one of two artistic directors—the other is Sybil Christopher, and managing director for development Julie Fitzgerald, who both spoke in separate interviews, Ms. Mitchell stressed that Bay Street is a not-for-profit theater, a status that she and the others believe is not always well understood in the community.
“Even in the best of times, we have to go out and raise money,” she said. Of an overall budget that has reached as high as $3.2 million in the past and has been pared more recently to roughly $2.5 million, box office sales are normally expected to cover “just under half,” she said. Indeed, she maintained, were they to sell out every offering—theater productions, movies, classes, music and more—they would still be far from their goal.
Like other local cultural institutions, Bay Street relies heavily on an annual gala, with pricey tickets to help make up the difference. (Theirs have sold for $500 for the past five years.) Unfortunately, though this year’s event on a 1960s theme was as much fun as ever, according to Ms. Fitzgerald, ticket sales were down by 15 to 20 percent.
Even more disappointing were the meager returns from the silent and live auctions, normally mega money-makers at the gala.
When the sounds of dueling bidders should have been filling the air, “this year it was very, very quiet,” said Ms. Fitzgerald. “People really weren’t bidding. It was difficult.”
Less surprising, perhaps, has been the decline in individual, corporate and government contributions. Regular donors often repeat their admiration and appreciation of the work that the theater does, said Ms. Mitchell, but they follow up with familiar stories of stock losses and financial unease and explain that they are reining in spending. Corporate sponsors also have praise for the theater, she added, but tell her that “they won’t be able to do as much as they did before.”
Referring to the confusion that he believes leads to misunderstanding in the community, Mr. Davis said that one of the main things the appeal letter is trying to convey is that “as a not-for profit, Bay Street is not a money-making business. We are here to serve the community. Our service business happens to be theater.”
Indeed, he argues, Bay Street is rather a generator of jobs and profits for others in the community it serves, bringing in people as participants and audiences who “utilize and support the businesses in town.”
As important as the economic benefits may be, no one at Bay Street would pin the argument for survival on them. Bay Street’s real value to the community, as the appeal letter suggests, is in the excitement and enrichment it provides with its “critically acclaimed theatrical productions, award- winning education programs, classic film nights, cabaret and comedy nights…”
Having cut costs where they could, the team at Bay Street stresses that it is continuing to offer such successful school programs as its Young Playwrights Program and Theater Camps for Kids. It even has a new one on the agenda. According to Ms. Mitchell, Literature Live, which debuts in November with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” is intended to bring literature to life on stage for young audiences.
Bay Street also added a new element to its theater offerings this summer, branching out to present two smaller–scale productions at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, where the concert hall offers a suitably intimate space for less elaborate performances.
“It was quite successful,” said Ms. Mitchell, “but certainly not a money-maker the first year. It takes time and marketing to build programs.”
As the appeal gets underway in earnest, some of the stars who count themselves members of Bay Street’s extended family have started to step up to lead the way. Two benefit evenings are already planned, with Alan Alda and Joy Behar pledging to perform on the same night of Columbus Day weekend, Saturday, October 10, at 8 p.m., though neither has suggested exactly what form their individual programs will take. On Wednesday, October 14, at 8 p.m., it will be comedian Lewis Black’s turn to take the stage for the cause.
Tickets for the Alan Alda and Joy Behar evening are $100, with a limited number of premium tickets available for $150, which includes a reception with the stars. For the Lewis Black show, all tickets are $100. All tickets are available by calling the box office at 631-725-9500, open daily at 11 a.m.
And while tickets to these benefit evenings may sell out, donations of any size are also being requested, and can be made by calling the theater’s administrative offices at 631-725-0818, online at www.baystreet.org, by sending a check made payable to Bay Street Theatre, PO Box 810, Sag Harbor, NY 11963, or by visiting the theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor,
Having recently signed a three-year renewable lease for the Sag Harbor space that has been the theater’s home since it opened 18 years ago, the Bay Street team is proceeding with plans for a full calendar of future events, on stage and off. The achievement of those goals will depend on whether “the community will acknowledge our importance to them,” as Mr. Davis put it, and respond generously to their appeal.
“We try to convey our commitment to the public, to our neighbors—full-time, part-time and visitors,” said Mr. Davis, who spoke with passion about why he believes Bay Street must survive. Although he didn’t mention it himself, an example of this kind of commitment to the community could be seen in the theater’s upcoming open mic night on Thursday, September 17, starting at 5:30 in support of keeping the broadcasters of WLIU public radio on the East End and on the air.
“None of us are getting rich from this,” he said. “We love to do it and we believe in it, in the importance of the arts in people’s lives. Often the arts are looked upon as a luxury. I think they are a necessity for an enriched, educated and exciting life.”
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