By Annette Hinkle
The stars will come out early this weekend in Sag Harbor — and we’re not talking heavens here, but theatre. Specifically, the Bay Street Theatre, which, on Saturday, dedicates its new 99 seat Annie & Eli stage — a theatre within the theatre — named for that consummate acting couple, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach.
“The Annie & Eli Second Stage” (as it is officially known) gets its first workout on Saturday when family, friends and colleagues of Jackson, 83, and Wallach, 94, pay tribute to the talent and shear longevity of the couple. Actors Zoe Caldwell, Brian Murray and Peter Riegert will offer scenes from theatrical pieces which originally featured Jackson and Wallach. Also on hand will be Lauren Bacall, Patricia Neal and playwrights Murray Schisgal and Joe Pintauro. In addition, there will be video messages from Barbara Cook, Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino, Mike Nichols and a host of others.
Bay Street’s Co-Artistic Director, Murphy Davis, notes that Jackson and Wallach are akin to acting royalty and represent the last in a long line of theatrical couples like Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn or Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
“There aren’t that many couples left that hold that place in theatrical history … Naming it the ‘Anne & Eli’ – that was a no brainier,” says Davis of the stage’s moniker. “That was immediate for us. They have been so great to us since Bay Street’s inception with emotional and financial support. They’re what we call ‘pals.’ They come to every gala.”
The 99 seat Annie & Eli is actually a smaller theatre carved out of Bay Street’s existing 299 seat house. By using false walls bolted to the floor and blocking off the seating on the far sides of the theatre, a new smaller stage is created. The idea is flexibility. Salaries can often determine whether a theatre chooses to produce a play or not and a smaller house means a lower pay scale for union actors. With the blessing of Actors Equity, Bay Street can now choose which size theatre will best suit a given production.
“The idea is we are expanding and contracting the theatre based on the population and the needs out here,” explains Davis, who notes that a prime motivation for the new stage is Bay Street’s desire to present plays year round.
“One of the things we’re aware of is there’s no off-season here anymore. That’s the message we want to put out — the idea is to offer theatre to a savvy and interested, but smaller, crowd from September to May.”
Davis says the goal at Bay Street is to eventually offer two plays in fall and two in spring, in addition to the mainstage summer season.
“The idea is for us to expand our producing options. We’d be focusing on new plays and developmental work,” adds Davis. “These are plays that probably aren’t right for the summer months. They might be a little more edgy, more challenging in terms of subject matter.”
“And if something worked in the 99 seat house, it gives us the opportunity to bring it back to the mainstage,” he says.
In fact, Davis notes that Bay Street’s first mainstage production of the summer season, Damian Lanigan’s “Dissonance” which opens June 1, will be presented on the Annie & Eli stage.
“On the first show we usually get smaller audiences and there’s a psychological component for both audience and actor when you’re in a theatre that doesn’t feel full,” explains Davis.
The Annie & Eli returns again in October for The Workshops, in which artists spend a week working on a new theatre piece, and perform it live on the final night. The piece, “Raindogs,” is a musical version of Lanford Wil-son’s play “Balm and Gilead.”
Audiences can expect more productions on the Annie and Eli Stage for the 2011-12 season once the budget is set, but this Saturday, it’s all about Annie and Eli themselves. Davis reports that when Anne Jackson heard that the stage would be named for she and her husband, she burst into tears.
“They were thrilled,” says Davis. “It’s great because one of their dear friends was Elaine Steinbeck for whom our mainstage is named.”
“We love the idea of this stage being imbued with the spirit of Anne and Eli,” adds Davis. “For us, they’re the embodiment of everything theatrical. And everything that’s good about theatre.”
Tickets to “The Annie & Eli Second Stage” dedication are $100 and include a wine reception in the theatre lobby at 6:30 p.m. followed by the 7:30 p.m. performance. A limited number of $500 tickets are also available, which includes dinner with the stars at The American Hotel following the show. Call Bay Street Theatre (Long Wharf, Sag Harbor) at 725-0818 to reserve.
Top: Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson in earlier days