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Sybil Christopher

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The co-founder of Bay Street Theatre who is stepping down from her Artistic Director’s position after 20 years. Christopher will still act as a consultant for the theater.

Emily J Weitz

You’ve been with Bay Street since the beginning. How has it changed over the past 20 years?

There was a wonderful café cattycorner to where Bay Street is now, and [Steve Hamilton and Emma Walton Hamilton and I] looked across the street and said “wouldn’t that be a wonderful theatre?” It had been empty – it was the Black Hole of Calcutta, but it had the bones, as they say. It was like ignorance is bliss. Off we started, and Emma and Steve’s very good friend Murphy Davis came on very quickly.

If I look back, it’s laughing a lot, being dirty, painting, music playing all the time. I remember shouting at Murphy one day, saying “enough Judy Garland!” Our first play was ‘Men’s Lives,’ which was timely and was [about an issue] happening as we were putting on the play. Steve had read the book and said, ‘I think there’s a play here’…  Joe Pintauro was [writing] the play, and Emma was a huge help with him and [the play] was this wonderful little gem which belonged to the East End.

I feel, although 20 years have gone, I still have a sense of sadness that I never did Chekhov or Shakespeare. We did Terrence McNally, Edward Albee, all the great American playwrights. But Chekhov is my favorite of all time — I think he was part Welsh [she laughs].”

We achieved so much of what we set out to achieve: we’ve taken chances, and very few I regret. We did Mamet’s “Romance” and that was like “Oh my God, dare we?”  We got a bit of mail but not much. The word of mouth was extraordinary. Christopher Durang was very hairy — no theater across the country dared touch it. Murphy and I said “no way, no way,” and then we did it. And we got more unpleasant mail than usual. But a lot of people said “Oh my God, we laughed.” We have taken huge chances, huge.

How do you envision the theater growing over the next 20 years?

It will be exciting to watch. Number one: Where will we be? And how the programming grows will always be interesting. Murphy and I agree 99 percent of the time, but we’ll see what happens. I trust Murphy. And Bay Street, for such a tiny organization, is amazing. It’s the hardest working group of low paid people in the area, but it’s worth it. We love it. 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 theatre. From age 15 to 18, I saw 52 plays a year. 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. The arts are imperative in your life. When all else fails, the arts are what surfaces.

How important is it to you that Bay Street remains in Sag Harbor?

Very important. [Landlord] Pat Malloy has been kind to us. He’s misunderstood. Although the rent is fantastically high for us, he could have gotten more. But it is what it is. Where we are on that corner with that little courtyard and the lobby and the water and the windmill — it is a joke. Actors come out here and they are speechless. It’s the prettiest lobby I’ve been to anywhere in any theatre, in London, L.A., anywhere. My only issue is I wish the seats were red. I’ve been like a dog with a bone about that since the beginning. I always wanted red seats.

But I think it’s extraordinary. Even things that are strange about it — the dressing rooms behind the bar — it’s fun.

So, can you catch me up on the latest news? Is Bay Street going to stay in the building?

We just don’t know. We’ve investigated different options, like the school, but it just wouldn’t work. We’ll never find anything as sweet as this. In the summer on the weekends, I love to walk towards the theater, and see the magnet of people going down Main Street towards that building. It would make me so sad to see that disappear from the community. We were hoping someone would set up a campaign, but I don’t think anything has happened. We’re hoping to reopen conversations with Malloy.

What does Bay Street mean to the Sag Harbor community? What does it mean to have a small theater in this community?

I believe it’s made a huge difference, I gather, from the restaurants. When we first opened, Friday and Saturday nights the shops weren’t open. I don’t remember such a vibrant Main Street. I know some of the actors can’t believe this town. Most actors when they come out of the theater, town is dead. But Sag Harbor is full of activity. People eating ice cream on the benches. It’s a unique town.

Anything you’d like to add?

If you asked me, I wouldn’t be able to say the five best shows we’ve done. But the thrill for me — I always sit at the back of the theater, and to sit there when it’s full, and to watch the faces of 299 people, watching this play, and to know I chose the play. It’s not an ego trip, it’s just — it’s a bloody good play. That’s been exciting. From the word go, I’ve said “I live in paradise, and I work in the theater, and New York’s down the road.”