This week Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre will host an Open Mic rally to save the East End’s public radio station, WLIU-FM, but according to theatre general manager Tracy Mitchell, WLIU is not the only cultural institution in need of community support. Bay Street Theatre, a not-for-profit, is facing a half million dollar deficit next year after a tumultuous economy that led not only to cutbacks in state and federal funding of the East End theatrical mainstay, but also a decline in the number of theatre goers during its peak summer season.
“We knew donations would be down,” said Mitchell on Wednesday, noting 50 percent of the theatre’s revenues as a not-for-profit are derived from ticket sales, but the other 50 percent is dependent on grant funding, donations and monies from the state and federal government. “We knew we would take a hit there, so last year we cut back. But we thought we would at least still get butts in the seats.”
Mitchell said despite rave reviews for this summer’s mainstage productions, not only from the local papers, but also from The New York Times and Newsday, Bay Street did not see the kind of patronage it was accustomed to having in July and August — crucial months for the theatre to make profits before the beginning of the off season.
“The tourists just were not there,” said Mitchell. “We did not see the number of Europeans we were used to. Families did not seem to be spending the extra money on theatre. It was kind of shocking. Despite our rave reviews, we were sometimes playing to less than 50 percent of the house.”
This week, with the financial reality of the theatre apparent to its board, Bay Street has reached out to the East End community in an effort to preserve its theatrical productions, educational programming and film, music and comedy nights. Appealing to the local community and its plethora of artists, Bay Street has started this imitative with a Columbus Day weekend event featuring Alan Alda and Joy Behar, and comedian Lewis Black performing the following Wednesday.
“As personal friends of the artistic directors, Sybil Christopher and Murphy Davis, all of these incredible artists have agreed to appear at Bay Street in order to show their support,” said Mitchell in a press release.
Alda and Behar are set to appear on Saturday, October 10 at 8 p.m. with Black performing October 14, also at 8 p.m.
On Wednesday, Mitchell said it is the theatre’s hope that events like the Columbus Day weekend extravaganza will help shepherd Bay Street through this economically tough time, but she noted it will need continued financial support from not only marquee names like Alda, Behar and Black, but the community at large.
“Quite frankly, we need to get the message across to the community that we are not doing fine,” said Mitchell. “We are a not-for-profit, and I don’t think many people realize what we mean to the community. We may be a traditional regional theatre in the summer, but we are much, much more the other nine months of the year.”
Hosting community forums like the WLIU rally, educational programming, fall movie nights, kids theatre and community events, Mitchell noted Bay Street has essentially become Sag Harbor’s unofficial community center.
“We don’t make money on a lot of these events,” said Mitchell. “But we open our doors because we are the community center by default, which we want to be. But now we need a little support.”
“I think all of us firmly believe we will get this support and we are not ready to cross that bridge,” said Mitchell when asked what will happen to Bay Street if the public does not hear its call for help. “If I was not an eternal optimist, I don’t think I would have gotten into the arts. God knows none of us are doing this for the money.”
To make a donation to Bay Street Theatre, or learn more about the upcoming Columbus Day weekend events, call the box office at 725-9500 or the administrative offices at 725-0818.