Q&A With Bay Street’s Artistic Director Scott Schwartz

Scott Schwartz at Bay Street Theater at the start of the 2017 mainstage season.

This week, Bay Street Theater unveiled its plans for a new facility to be built on Long Island Avenue in Sag Harbor. Bay Street Artistic Director Scott Schwartz talked about the way in which a new space will change what the theater can offer.

Q: What have some of the biggest challenges been at the current theater?

Well, the current space has been a really wonderful home for now 30 years. For me, it’s been eight years. And the theater itself is just marvelous. We love the intimacy and the relationship with the audience and the actors and we’ve been able to do a huge variety of work on the stage, so that’s been great.

It’s also just an amazing location in town, but the truth of it is, we’ve outgrown it. We can’t really fit the amount of staff we have now, certainly in the summer in non-COVID times when we’re back to full capacity. We also feel that, particularly in the summer months, there’s the opportunity to do more new work as well as more of the great musicals and we’re just kind of bursting at the seams right now.

So that’s the main challenge, and look, obviously it’s an incredibly beautiful theater, but it was built 30 years ago. There are some new technologies in terms of fly space, meaning that scenery can come in from above and things can come in from below, and updated lighting and digital technologies that just weren’t around when the theater was originally built. We have an opportunity to really make sure the new facility is state of the art.

Q: And what about the backstage areas?

Yeah, the backstage is pretty small and limited. To be honest, the new theater is not going to have a huge amount of additional space, the actual theater is going to be pretty close to what we have now. In terms of size, we wanted to really retain the intimacy and the feeling that we liked where the cast is sort of thrust out into the audience. All of that is being retained.

It’s a lot of the tools that we have around that space that will enhance our production abilities. One of the other things that we’re planning on is trying to expand our ability to have partnerships and have the work we do at our theater go on and be seen at other theaters around the country.

Q: Hasn’t Bay Street done that in the past?

Yes, we do that already. But being a thrust theater sometimes is a little limiting in that way because most theaters are proscenium with the audience on one side and the stage on the other. Sometimes, being a thrust theater is a bit challenging, so we’re planning on having a flexible theater that can be thrust most of the time, but occasionally we can move it into proscenium as well, which will allow us to have more partnerships with other companies.

Our production of “Hedda Gabler” went to Broadway and “Grey Gardens” went to the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, so it’s possible to have a stage space which is more analogous to partner theaters, which obviously, makes it easier.

Q: Are you going to have multiple performance spaces or is it just the one flexible theater?

The current plan is that we will have one official theater, which will be the mainstage, which will be pretty similar in size to what we have. But we are going to be building a state of the art rehearsal/education space so we’ll have dedicated space for educational programs. So it is possible that we will be able to offer performances with a smaller audience in that space as well, but that would be really on a case-by-case basis and then we’d have this amazing educational facility.

Q: What are the current challenges in terms of educational programming?

Again, it’s all about space. We have the theater, but when something’s going on in the theater, it can be difficult to do anything else. We’ve grown so much online programming during the pandemic, which frankly we expect to continue to do even if things start to reopen. We don’t have a location where we can hold these classes, particularly in the summer, but even year round, because we still do programming on the weekends all year round. The new building will have a dedicated education space and that will be for kids to do all of our wonderful programs — summer camps, but also year round programs — and it’ll also be for adults.

One of the things we’ve been doing a lot more during the pandemic is offering classes for adults, we have a wonderful partnership with AARP, which offers these classes free to AARP members. We have writing classes, but right now we also have this really cool class, which is European history as seen through the lens of opera. If we were live, we wouldn’t be able to do that right now because we wouldn’t have a space, or we would have to go elsewhere, which is what we currently do. We probably will actually still do some of that, but we would love to have more of our educational programming located at Bay Street.

Q: What’s on your wish list for the new theater?

One thing would be to really expand our new works programs and to take our current New Works Festival, which is limited to one week of the year, and expand that, maybe over multiple weeks so it happens throughout the year.

We’re also very focused right now on finding writers from underrepresented communities to have a much larger new works development program that will allow us to have a very diverse program and more local writers. We’re excited about that. We serve local playwrights and local writers because we have so many talented writers here. Some of them are world famous, of course, but some of them are people who have become successful in other things and are moving into writing. We would love to be able to serve those writers and give them more opportunities.

The other thing is the ability to do more musicals and to take what we’re doing with musicals, which is re-envisioning classic musicals through a new lens on our stage, and do more of those and have the facility to make those even more fabulous.

Q: Bay Street’s mainstage season is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Do you envision expanding the season, especially after the pandemic when you might have a larger year round audience?

Yeah, it is something we’re talking about quite a lot because there is a much larger year round population. We look at each other sometimes and say, “Oh my God, if only we could be programming, right.” So I think that’s definitely on the table. If we have a flexible space which is a little smaller we could do more stuff in this more intimate space in the fall and spring. The larger your theater, frankly the more expensive it is to create work — you have to sell more tickets and it has to do with the union rules. Whereas, if we were doing something in a smaller space in the fall or the spring that only had 99 seats, that would be more affordable for us, while still top quality. It’s not something we would do immediately, but more over the course of a few years.

Q: What about the nuts and bolts items in the new space, like dressing rooms and props storage?

We are certainly expanding the dressing room capabilities. Right now, when we do bigger shows like “My Fair Lady,” we have people in the rehearsal room sometimes we have them in an office with curtains around them and musicians have to camp out in somebody’s office, and we will have space for all of those people.

We will have more storage in the building, but we will maintain a facility that we have currently in Riverhead, where we build our scenery and store a lot of our stuff because, frankly, we want the building in Sag Harbor for our community and we want as much of it as possible to be a space for public experience.

Q: With indoor venues still limited due to COVID-19, how is Bay Street planning this summer season? I know Sag Harbor Village has not approved the idea of tented outdoor performances either in Steinbeck Park or in the parking lot where the new theater will be built.

We’re still trying to work out exactly what we can do, but I’m sure we will not do a full indoor season. We are hoping to do outdoor performances and I’m disappointed, frankly, that the village hasn’t been a little more supportive of that because we had a plan that we felt was very safe and would be very attractive to the Sag Harbor residents. Theaters up and down the East Coast are doing outdoor performances in their communities and I’m still very hopeful that we will find an opportunity and are continuing to approach private organizations to see if there might be a space for things we will be able to offer outdoors.

But what I can assure you, without going into too much detail is, we are going to do some live programming this summer. We are going to offer performances to our community.