By Annette Hinkle
Truth be told, 2012 was a year of challenges for the Bay Street Theatre.
First came a summer mainstage season in which the three productions — two of which were premieres — often played to less than packed houses.
Then, in October, came Superstorm Sandy — right in the midst of Bay Street’s Literature Live production of “The Crucible.” Because of the storm, schools across Long Island were forced to cancel trips to Sag Harbor to see the play at Bay Street.
“We were very fortunate not to have physical damage here from Sandy, but we were hit hard when all the schools canceled Literature Live because of what they were going through,” explains Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street’s executive director. “We lost $20,000 for that production alone — and these kinds of numbers are hard to make up for us.”
Then, right before Christmas, Bay Street’s long-time artistic director, Murphy Davis, left his position with the theater.
So given all that’s transpired in recent months, last week, when Bay Street announced its summer mainstage line up, it should have come as no surprise what the focus will be for 2013.
This summer, it’s all about maintaining a sense of humor.
“I just want to laugh this summer,” says Mitchell. “I said, ‘Can we please have a summer of fun?’ That was kind of what we came to. Get people in here with titles they know.”
With that in mind, Bay Street’s mainstage season kicks off May 28 with Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” which is set at a gala fundraiser in 1934 where chaos, mistaken identity and double entendres ensue. Don Stephenson will direct the comedy, which runs through June 23.
Next up will be Charles Ludlum’s “The Mystery of Irma Vepp” from July 2 to 28. Directed by Kenneth Elliot, the three-act play is a satire of several theatrical and film genres (including Victorian melodrama, farce and Alfred Hitchcock). The play stars two actors who, between them, take on eight characters of both sexes with 35 quick costume changes.
The summer season will wind down with the 1963 Stephen Sondheim musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Marcia Milgrom Dodge (who directed both “Hair” and “The Who’s Tommy” for Bay Street) returns to helm this musical comedy, which tells the story of a slave who attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door.
“The shows for this summer, I think, are literally laugh out loud,” says Mitchell.
This summer’s line-up of tried and true comedies represents a bit of a departure for Bay Street, which has long sought to balance its summer season by offering well-known plays along with new work, including dramas. While the focus on premieres has not gone away, Mitchell notes the timing of some of those productions just might change.
“I think one of the things we’re looking at is our mission, which is both new contemporary and classic theater,” explains Mitchell. “That has been the mission of the theater all along — so last year we did not one, but two premieres.”
While these premieres often garnered critical acclaim, Mitchell concedes they are a tough sell for summer audiences who are looking for light-hearted plays with name recognition.
“It’s a really important thing to get new work seen, but premieres are really hard to do because they’re not known titles people are familiar with. They don’t automatically drive audiences to come to the theater,” explains Mitchell. “The one thing that drives that is a title name — either a play you recognize as good summer fare or a star name.”
And summer, as any business owner out here knows, is all about packing houses while the sun shines.
“We, like many other non-profits, struggle financially, and it’s the chicken and the egg,” adds Mitchell. “Sometimes you want to support new work, but running this business in the Hamptons when you only have eight weeks to make your mark means you have to sell lots of tickets while people are here.”
“Then maybe we start to do some of the new work not during those eight weeks,” says Mitchell. “My feeling is, it’s a new day at the Bay, and it’s all about laughing and having a good time. Not that we won’t do another drama. I think we might get back to that in the shoulder season.”
But the theater isn’t looking to do any of this in a vacuum. Late last week, Bay Street announced it is embarking on a six month “listening tour” to garner input from audience members as well as potential artistic and community partners about how the theater might form new alliances on a year round basis.
“This is the most exciting opportunity since the founding of Bay Street,” notes Mitchell. “It really represents a sea change in the sense that we have decided to really reach out — to refresh, renew and explore artistically beyond where we have been.”
“We do believe that there is a place for more dramatic theater, new work, as well as the more avant-garde and experimental,” she adds. “We do know that younger audiences enjoy more participatory offers and theater without walls … it is certainly our goal to explore it all.”
One good example of such a partnership is this summer’s production of “Lend Me a Tenor,” which is currently running at the Paper Mill Play House in New Jersey. Director Don Stephenson, it turns out, has a home in Southampton and has always wanted to work with Bay Street on a project.
“So it’s another way to partner,” says Mitchell. “It’s not an actual co-production, but we can take elements like props, costumes and the cast — if we like the cast and if they’re available. It’s a way of cutting costs.”
“You’ll hear us doing a lot of that — forming artistic partnerships with people and organizations,” she explains. “It takes people who might not otherwise connect to the theater, and brings all our needs together.”
And for Mitchell, this means ushering in the next intriguing chapter of Bay Street’s tenure in Sag Harbor — one the community will help to write.
“Frankly this is the most exciting time in the history of Bay Street, this is the next moment that’s going to make a difference,” says Mitchell. “This really is the first time we will be bringing in these artistic ideas. At the end of the day, the new partnerships we form are all about new ideas. What is it people want to see?”
Bay Street’s board of trustees is committed to this vision as well and to support the 2013 mainstage season and Bay Street’s future, the board’s executive committee has announced a $100,000 challenge grant. Now through March 15, every dollar the theater raises from patrons, subscribers, donors, volunteers and the community at large, will be matched dollar for dollar by the committee, up to $100,000. All donations are tax deductible. To donate, visit the Bay Street box office (Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), call Jessica Lemire in the development office at 725-0818 ext. 129, donate online at www.baystreet.org, or send a check to Bay Street Theatre, PO Box 810, Sag Harbor, NY 11963.
To purchase a subscription to Bay Street’s three mainstage season plays this summer, visit the website or call the box office at 725-9500.