Issues on Tap at New Hamptons Celebrity Roundtable Series

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Warren Sturgatch and Cindy Smith, co-producer of OOTQ. Jim Lennon photo

By Michelle Trauring

It was an ordinary day in Bridgehampton when a familiar profile stopped Warren Strugatch mid-step.

“Gee, that guy standing over at the silk screens there looks so much like Kurt Vonnegut,” he said he thought to himself. “It’s amazing.”

It was the mid-1980s and he focused on where he was. The former English major took a deep breath and glanced around the Elaine Benson Gallery, only to land back where he’d started.

Of course it was Kurt Vonnegut. The realization pushed him toward the legendary author before he even knew what he was doing.

“I walked over and he was happy for somebody to talk with,” Mr. Strugatch recalled during a recent telephone interview. “I had, like, an hour-long conversation with Kurt Vonnegut about anything I wanted, and it was just a ball.

“Somebody like Kurt Vonnegut, to me, was somebody you might go hear a lecture from, or reading, and then approach him with 30 or 40 other people for a minute,” he continued. “And there he was, just standing there. To me, that was really my introduction to the Hamptons.”

That concept is the driving force behind “Out of the Question,” a series of conversations hosted by Mr. Strugatch that makes some of the biggest names, newsmakers and innovators on the East End easily accessible to audiences — who are encouraged to actively participate during each forum, the first of which will kick off on Thursday at the Southampton Arts Center.

But make no mistake. These are not celebrity lectures followed by a Q&A, Mr. Strugatch emphasized. These are real discussions and exchanges of candid opinions on national and local concerns that surround current events, as well as issues specific to the East End: real estate, business, art, the food industry, architecture, building and the economy.

These were the types of conversations Mr. Strugatch imagined buzzing around him at a party in 2002 — a classic Hamptons soiree complete with a massive estate, immaculate catering and countless famous faces rubbing elbows.

The only problem was that he couldn’t hear them. The noise was deafening.

“I think it was Christie Brinkley in front of me, Jerry Della Femina was to one side of me, somebody else was to the other, and there was another model behind me. And I literally couldn’t walk,” he laughed. “I said, ‘My God, this is like a model gridlock. Where else but the Hamptons?’ I know, I don’t get much sympathy for that.

“There were all these interesting people having all these interesting conversations, and I thought it would be so cool if we could organize the conversations a bit — make them a little less random — and open them to the community, making something that anybody who wanted to buy a ticket would be able to come in and participate,” he said. “And this is what happened.”

A year later, Mr. Strugatch launched the inaugural “Out of the Question” at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, and it would live for two more years at Guild Hall in East Hampton before the journalist decided he needed a hiatus.

It would be the country’s political and social climate that was enough to pull “Out of the Question” out of storage, he said.

“Watching the election campaign, I really became very emotional and upset and despairing over the caliber of the conversations that we had as a nation over the very important questions about what kind of a country we are and which direction we’re heading,” he said. “It seems that we’ve lost the ability to have rational discussions, empirical discussions on important topics. The name calling and finger pointing and shouting, it has nothing to do with discussion. There’s no real exchange of ideas going on that’s essential to democracy.

“And I don’t think the candidates helped matters, either. They frankly set the tone of lack of discussion and lack of rational conversation. And I felt the lack of discussion really hurt the country and produced an election that did not reflect real logical choice making.”

Warren Strugatch, former Hampton Classic executive director Tony Hitchcock, chef and television personality George Hirsch, Splish Splash founder Chip Cleary, Shinnecock Nation tribal leader Lance Gumbs, and retired Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela. Courtesy photo

The journalist can’t promise that politics won’t come up, but he said he expects this year’s participants to stick to what they really know. For the first group — Judi Desiderio, president of Town & Country Real Estate; Joe Farrell, founder of Farrell Building Company; Pamela Liebman, president and CEO of The Corcoran Group; and Zachary Vichinsky, co-founder of Bespoke Real Estate — it’s trends seen across the real estate market. But who knows what tangents they will take, Mr. Strugatch said.

“People assume it’s Warren Strugatch asking all these questions because that’s what he does,” he said. “I ask the first questions and each panelist gets their own question. And then after I finish asking, it’s adult swim. They talk among themselves. They ask each other questions, they rebut, they extend, they riff. It’s truly a conversation. As that gets going, my job is to bring the audience in and help them become a part of that conversation.

“For all the talking I’m doing now, I really don’t talk that much in the shows,” he added. “I want my panelists to be talking and I want the audience to be talking. I talk enough, I don’t need the extra practice.”

The series offers audiences a window into talking with personalities that might intimidate them otherwise, and is as close to the conversational salon that people think of when they consider the Hamptons, Mr. Strugatch said.

And they don’t have to be A-listers to participate, he said.

“In a sense, ‘Out of the Question’ recreates my conversation with Kurt Vonnegut,” he said. “What really mattered to me about that particular conversation was that I found out these people are accessible, in the sense that they, for the most part, don’t live isolated, or lives that are hidden behind gates. Most of us don’t necessarily want to just walk up and tap them on the shoulder and start up a conversation. We respect their privacy. So ‘Out of the Question’ does that for you. It’s about a conversation on a peer-to-peer level. These are really neighbors talking to other neighbors.”

“Out of the Question,” hosted by journalist Warren Strugatch, will kick off with “Real Estate: What’s Trending Now?” on Thursday, May, 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center. Participants will include Judi Desiderio, Joe Farrell, Pamela Liebman and Zachary Vichinsky. Additional conversations will be held throughout the summer with notable East End figures, including artists Eric Fischl and Toni Ross, restaurateurs Mark Smith, Eric Lemonides and Guy Reuge, architect Paul Masi, and architecture critic and journalist Paul Goldberger. Tickets are $15. For a full schedule and lineup, visit ootq-show.com.

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