By Annette Hinkle
Sybil Christopher, a co-founder of Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre and its artistic director for 22 years, died Friday, March 8 in New York City.
She was 83 years old.
Born Sybil Williams on March 27, 1929 in Tylorstown, South Wales, she lost both her parents by age 15. She went to live with her older sister and throughout her teens, saw countless productions at a local theater where she began to try her hand at acting. She went on to train at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts.
As an actress on the set of her first and only film, Christopher met fellow actor and Welshman Richard Burton. The couple married in 1948 and had two daughters, Kate and Jessica. Burton eventually left Christopher for Elizabeth Taylor and the couple divorced in 1963.
By then, Christopher was living in New York, and in 1965, she partnered with Roddy McDowall and Edward Villella to open “Arthur” a wildly successful nightclub on 54th Street in New York City. The club attracted a long list of high profile celebrities including Truman Capote, Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev. In 1966, Christopher married Jordan Christopher, the singer in the club’s house band. They had one daughter, Amy. He died in 1996.
After selling the club in 1969, Christopher co-founded the New Theatre in New York. Productions included “The Knack,” directed by Mike Nichols and “The Mad Show” written by Mary Rodgers.
Christopher’s theatrical life in Sag Harbor began in 1991when she founded the Bay Street Theatre with Emma Walton Hamilton and Stephen Hamilton. The theater was built in a former disco on Long Wharf and Christopher and her partners frequently tapped into the talents of well-known local playwrights like Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson for material. The theater’s inaugural 1992 production was Joe Pintauro’s “Men’s Lives,” based on Peter Matthiessen’s book about East End fishermen (Bay Street revived that play just last summer).
Over the years, Bay Street produced countless plays during the summer season, some of which found their way to stages in New York City. After 22 year as the theater’s artistic director, Christopher stepped down in March of 2012. In December when her health began to fail, she returned to Manhattan.
Last March, in an interview with the Express, Christopher emphasized the importance of theater in a community and the vital role it played in her own young life.
“We know it’s important. I grew up in Wales and when my parents died, when I was 15, I moved to Northampton in England, and there was weekly repertory theater. From age 15 to 18, I saw 52 plays a year,” she said.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve always hoped the young people realize how lucky they are that they have this wonderful jewel of a theater down the street,” added Christopher of the Bay Street Theatre. “The arts are imperative in your life. When all else fails, the arts are what surfaces.”
“She was such an indomitable spirit. This woman was two weeks shy of 84. But she had the energy, spirit and curiosity of somebody much younger,” said Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street’s executive director. “After we had a good cry here, I said “Sybil would hate the fact we’re doing this. She would say, ‘Get on with it darlings.’”
“Anytime something was going on that was unpleasant, she would say ‘Just give me two hours in the dark darling.’ She meant, let her go see a show,” added Mitchell. “That kind of spirit in an office really reverberates. We really miss her.”
Per Christopher’s wishes, there will be no funeral services. Bay Street Theatre plans to host a celebration of her life in the near future.