After 20 years, the Bay Street Theatre has almost become synonymous with Sag Harbor’s iconic Long Wharf; but by its 2013 season, the theater will no longer find its home there.
According to Bay Street Theatre executive director Tracy Mitchell, after this summer season the theater will move on from Long Wharf and the space it has inhabited for the whole of the theater’s life. The theater has long leased the space from waterfront property owner Patrick Malloy III and its board will not seek to renew that lease when it expires at the end of 2012.
Last week, the theater announced it will host a community meeting on January 12 at 7 p.m. in an effort to find a solution that will allow them to find a permanent home in Sag Harbor. If not, they have already begun to negotiate with the Village of Southampton, which has invited them to be the resident theater in the space that will be vacated by the Parrish Art Museum.
At a Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees meeting this fall, Mitchell and Bay Street Theatre Creative Director Murphy Davis cited the high cost of operating a theater in a leased space as one of several reasons the theater would move on.
The theater’s board of directors and its management were united in the decision, said Mitchell.
The theater’s administration, however, does hope Bay Street will find its new home in Sag Harbor, although no new theater space has been announced yet.
“The idea is eventually we will have a permanent home in Sag Harbor, which is a place we are committed to staying in,” said Mitchell in an interview earlier this year. “It may take a few years to do it, to raise the money and find the right place, but we are exploring every avenue possible.”
In the meantime, Mitchell said that after the 2012 season it is possible the non-profit may operate as a “theater without walls” while solidifying plans for a new home. The board of directors and management have formed a Housing and Venue Committee and is looking at everything from empty spaces like the Stella Maris Regional School, said Mitchell, to partnering with developers in the village.
“Our number one goal is to stay in Sag Harbor,” continued Mitchell. “That was one of the reasons we got the news out there, in case there are people with the financial wherewithal to move this ball forward, because we will need help to do this, to find our new home.”
The reason Bay Street Theatre is unsustainable in its current location, said Mitchell, is primarily because the space the theater occupies is not for sale. Mitchell noted that ticket sales have actually increased over the last two years and that the theater generally is at 48-percent capacity – much higher than the average not-for-profit theater of Bay Street’s size.
On top of that, the theater’s budget has been pared down some 30 percent over three years, said Mitchell. If the budget was cut any lower, it would impact the productions – the death knell for any performing arts company, she said.
According to Mitchell, the theater pays Malloy about $185,000 annually. However, that is not the only rent the theater pays. Because it employs union actors and staff, management must provide housing for those people within a half-mile of the theater – in downtown Sag Harbor, in the summer. That adds an additional $150,000 to $200,000 in rent to the theater’s budget.
The theater also spends monies on a space in Riverhead to construct its sets.
“So we are talking about half a million in rent, and that is before we start talking about everything else the theater needs to operate,” said Mitchell.
The not-for-profit is also often denied grants because such a large amount of money is going towards rent, and not towards the arts, said Mitchell. Large donors, she added, are reluctant to donate to a theater that is not in a permanent location.
“We have been here for 20 years, and not it is time for us to take the theater to the next level for the next 20 years,” said Mitchell. “It’s exciting really – a challenge, certainly, but exciting. Can’t you just picture what it will be like when we have a permanent home for Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor?”