Anyone who works in the arts will tell you that the worldwide pandemic made this past year unlike anything they have ever seen in their careers. For Julienne Penza-Boone, who was named executive director of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center in early 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 shut down theaters for more than a year, figuring out how to schedule this year’s summer season for the 425-seat theater was nothing short of a balancing act.
Changing regulations and guidelines on mask wearing, proof of vaccination and indoor venue capacities have made planning a moving target. So Penza-Boone and her staff came up with a way to divide the summer season — taking advantage of the warm, longer days to offer outdoor programming throughout the summer (with a few, small-capacity events inside), and then bringing all programming back into the theater starting in late August.
“Overall, the biggest thing has been gauging the public’s comfortability,” explained Penza-Boone. “Though restrictions were lifted, for a while, theaters were the one area that was not allowed to open. For us to be successful and viable for national acts, we have to be able to be at 100-percent capacity.
“We knew people wouldn’t be comfortable shoulder to shoulder in our auditorium,” she added. “We wanted to give people time to wrap their heads around that.”
Not that there isn’t currently programming taking place inside the WHBPAC. Since mid-June, Andrew Botsford, the former Southampton Press Arts & Living editor, has been hosting the theater’s Summer Film Series every Tuesday and Wednesday evening, as he has for a decade and a half.
“They’re mainly foreign films, but not all of them. It’s Andrew’s 15th anniversary with the series. He does a talk back and gives background information and his thoughts,” said Penza-Boone, adding that typically, the series begins around July 4, but this year, kicked off in June.
“We’re trying different things in the film series, like more documentaries,” said Penza-Boone. “The challenge is to find things that are not streaming on another platform. We’re committed to first run films. In some cases, you could find these online, but they are films that deserve to be seen on the big screen.”
While indoor programming is happening at the WHBPAC, it’s on a smaller scale and across the board, no more than 250 audience members (and in some cases, far fewer) will be admitted to indoor performances until late August. For that reason, these offerings are more locally focused and geared toward smaller groups.
“We wanted to offer programming inside the theater, but in a way people would feel comfortable and be able to socially distance,” Penza-Boone said. “We looked for local programming and out of the box series to accommodate it.”
Besides the film series, which runs through August, on Saturday, July 31, WHBPAC welcomes psychic Christopher Allen, an event that will be capped at 150 so “he can read as many people as possible,” explained Penza-Boone.
“A board member had an incredible reading with him,” she added. “He’s a Long Island guy and he’s been on our radar for a while and while we’re only allowing limited folks in the theater, it was an opportunity to bring him in.”
That same weekend, on August 1, WHBPAC offers an author’s night with East End natives Kate Schumacher and Carinn Jade of the podcast “Pop Fiction Women” who will lead a conversation and book signing event with sister writing duo Lynne and Valerie Constantine (who write under the pen name of Liv Constantine) about their new thriller “The Stranger in the Mirror,” which has been optioned by Netflix. That event will also be capped at 150.
Also appearing indoors on Friday, July 30, will be Savage Pianos, a creative, interactive piano duo fronted by Steve Savage, a classically trained pianist from the Berklee College of Music. The performance involves two pianists on facing pianos taking turns playing audience requests and curated playlists. Savage Pianos was slated to perform at WHBPAC in March 2020, but the concert was postponed due to the pandemic.
“People have been waiting a long time to hear these pianos,” said Penza-Boone.
Also happening indoors this summer is “Songwriters in the Round,” an evening of songs and stories by Long Island singer/songwriters offered on July 18 and August 22, and WHBPAC’s summer acting camps for kids.
For fans of those larger summer events that WHBPAC is known for, this year, the real action will take place outdoors on the Great Lawn in Westhampton Beach.
“It’s important for us to keep going with what we’re known for, even though not welcoming people inside at full capacity. That’s fun, danceable concerts,” said Penza-Boone.
With that in mind, WHBPAC’s mainstage outdoor events begin Friday, July 23, with the Prince tribute band “The Purple Xperience” performing on the Great Lawn in a set-up designed to replicate the theater.
“An X marks the spot and you bring your lawn chair for assigned seating on the lawn,” Penza-Boone explained. “We also have Seth Meyers on July 24 — though we’re trying to keep it who we are as a 425-seat theater, we’ve expanded to 600 tickets for that.”
Perhaps the biggest weekend of the summer kicks off on Friday, August 13, when WHBPAC presents “Beachstock” on the Great Lawn. This summer gala dance party features music by New York City-based party band Square Feeet and guests will get comfortable in a cozy furnished pod for two to four people complete with a picnic dinner catered by Hamptons Aristocrat. The following night, Saturday, August 14, it’s back to bringing your own beach chair for Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, with Weinberg, the former drummer of Bruce Springsteen’s band, inviting fans to create the set list in real time. The weekend will wind down on Sunday, August 15, with the legendary rock band Jefferson Starship. While tickets for each show can be purchased separately, Penza-Boone explains that a $2,500 package gets guests a VIP pod for four with on-site parking for “Beachstock,” plus four tickets to the two other weekend shows.
“In addition to all that, we run The Moment, a cool program that highlights local entrepreneurs and lets them connect with 20 to 30 people,” she said of the series. “This year, it’s ‘Girls of Summer,’ we’re going to Hamptons Aristocrat to visit the kitchen and Mint Boutique to talk about fashion and Hampton and Dunes to talk about décor.”
Then, come August 27, at 8 p.m., the theater at WHBPAC is back in business and at 100-percent indoor capacity with a concert by Cimafunk, an Afro-Cuban artist.
“It’s such a party and the perfect first act for being back in the theater,” explained Penza Boone. “He’s Cuban and is touring through. He had an incredible hit performance at the Blue Note Jazz Club, and performed a Tiny Desk concert for NPR.
“I saw him at Webster Hall,” she added. “He was the last show I saw before the shut down. I was blown away and he’s just incredible.”
From September to November, WHBPAC will offer a full line-up of nationally-known artists, many of whom had performances rescheduled due to the pandemic. Fall acts will include That Motown Band, John Hiatt, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Los Lobos, José Feliciano, Darlene Love and many others. Shifting the season to the cooler months is a new model for the theater, and one that is giving Penza-Boone and her staff an opportunity to reconsider their mission and the audiences they serve.
“A lot of artists we rescheduled. We feel the demographics shifting and are really anticipating that our seasonal crowd will be hanging around a bit longer,” she said. “This schedule takes us through November and then we’ll reevaluate.”
Also being reevaluated is programming for audiences that WHBPAC has not always focused on in the past, particularly the Latino community.
“This is the silver lining of COVID,” she said. “We really looked inward and at our mission and had to take a hard look at who we’re serving and who we’re not serving and change that. We want our programs to reflect the community around us. We wanted to present more Latino offerings, reaching out to those audiences and get them in.”
To that end, WHBPAC’s Cultural Equity Council has been working to develop programming that caters to underserved audiences in the community.
Now, after a long year with its new focus and creative approach to summer scheduling, Penza-Boone is feeling confident that WHBPAC is in a good position to reopen its doors post-pandemic.
“I know people are ready to come back here. I think by August 27, everyone will be ready to come back,” said Penza-Boone. “We’re in a total niche moment. I think there’s this wrong notion that this is a sweet little theater in the country. It’s not. It’s a big deal theater and people expect real names and high quality talent.
“We work hard. We’re on the map and are proud of that.”
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is at 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. Tickets for all shows can be purchased at whbpac.org or by calling 631-288-1500.
WHBPAC’s Summer Schedule for 2021
Songwriters in the Round – Sunday, July 18, 7 p.m.
Host Fred Raimondo with Inda Eaton, Jack LaCitra and Rorie Kelly
Great Lawn: Purple Xperience – Friday, July 23, 8 p.m.
Marshall Charloff and the Purple Xperience bring the hits of Prince straight from Paisley Park to Westhampton Beach.
Great Lawn: Seth Meyers – Saturday, July 24, 8 p.m.
Seth Meyers is an Emmy Award-winning writer and host of “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Savage Pianos – Friday, July 30, 7:30 p.m.
Savage Pianos is the foremost dueling piano show in the Northeast known for their craftsmanship, deep repertoires, and unique personalities.
Psychic Medium Christopher Allan – Saturday, July 31, 7 p.m.
Renowned psychic medium Christopher Allan is ushering in a new era of spiritual enlightenment. His unique charm and devotion have touched the hearts of countless individuals who have suffered loss.
Pop Fiction Women – Sunday, August 1, 5:30 p.m.
Lynne and Valerie Constantine, authors of “The Stranger in the Mirror” join Kate Schumacher and Carinn Jade of the podcast Pop Fiction Women.
Great Lawn: Beachstock – Friday, August 13, 7 p.m.
Square Feeet deliver hit after hit on the Great Lawn. Party with your pod – up to four people – in a curated selection of outdoor seating, complete with refreshments provided by top Hamptons gourmands.
Great Lawn: Max Weinberg’s Jukebox – Saturday, August 14, 8 p.m.
Max Weinberg’s Jukebox comes armed with an unlimited repertoire of classic songs, engaging the audience in a truly interactive concert experience. Bring your beach chair.
Great Lawn: Jefferson Starship – Sunday, August 15, 8 p.m.
Jefferson Starship rose from the ashes of one of the quintessential Haight/Ashbury acts, Jefferson Airplane. The music that defined a generation and spanned decades is alive and well and more relevant than ever in pop culture. Bring your beach chair.
Songwriters in the Round – Sunday, August 22, 7 p.m.
Host Fred Raimondo with Brian Gallo, Cassandra House and Miles To Dayton’s Jon Preddice.
Cimafunk – Friday, August 27, 8 p.m.
Indoor concerts resume at WHBPAC with the hottest emerging artist in Latin music. Cimafunk seamlessly whips a bold mix of funk, Cubano heritage and African rhythms into a fiery frenzy.
That Motown Band – Saturday, September 4, 8 p.m.
With hits like “Heat Wave,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Baby Love,” “My Girl,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in their repertoire, this group has graced the stages of The Town Hall on Broadway, Center City in Philadelphia, The Inner Harbor in Baltimore and more.
John Hiatt – Sunday, September 5, 8 p.m.
With timeless lyrics, an iconic voice, and a catalog of legendary songs, this all-American musician returns to the WHBPAC for a solo performance.
Brian Stokes Mitchell – Saturday, September 11, 8 p.m.
A powerful baritone, Brian Stokes Mitchell has been one of the central leading men of Broadway theater since the 1990s.
Los Lobos – Sunday, September 19, 8 p.m.
Los Lobos has sold millions of records and with styles like Tejano, folk and country, doo-wop, soul, and R&B blend with rock ’n’ roll and punk, created a new sound that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Spin Doctors – Friday, September 24, 8 p.m.
After 30 years, the Spin Doctors are the last men standing, still making music like their lives depend on it. Even now, they aren’t ready to give up the road, adding to their tally of almost 2,000 shows.
Justin Willman – Sunday, October 3, 7 p.m.
Justin Willman is the star and creator of the Netflix series “Magic for Humans.” His online videos have logged over a 100 million views.
Bubby’s Kitchen – Saturday, October 9, 8 p.m.
Bubby’s Kitchen is a show inspired by the heroic actions of resistance taken by Shira Ginsburg’s grandparents against the Nazis during World War II as they survived through sheer determination in the forests of Belarus. This is a story about bravery, camaraderie, and the power of living.
Steve Tyrell – Sunday, October 10, 8 p.m.
A charming and charismatic performer, and a career spanning television, film, radio and Broadway, Tyrell’s powerful range makes him a hit with jazz-lovers of all ages.
WAR – Thursday, October 14, 8 p.m.
Multi-platinum-selling WAR, the original street band, has been sharing its timeless music and message of brotherhood and harmony for almost five decades before millions across the globe.
ABBA The Concert – Saturday, October 16, 8 p.m.
ABBA The Concert is widely praised as “the closest to ABBA you’ll ever get.”
Laura Benanti – Sunday, October 17, 8 p.m.
Laura Benanti, Broadway and TV performer, presents a one-woman production, “Tales from Soprano Isle,” marked with humorous monologues, witty stories, and flawless soprano vocals from both classic Broadway productions as well as recognizable, modern tunes.
Robyn Hitchcock – Friday, October 22, 8 p.m.
A surrealist poet, talented guitarist, cult artist and musician’s musician, Hitchcock is among alternative rock’s father figures and is the closest thing the genre has to a Bob Dylan (not coincidentally his biggest musical inspiration).
José Feliciano – Saturday, October 23, 8 p.m.
This international sensation is probably best known by American artists for the beloved Christmas song, “Feliz Navidad,” but his specialty is in bringing his own unique style to well-known songs.
Mike DelGuidice & Big Shot – Saturday, November 6, 8 p.m.
Mike DelGuidice is one of Long Island’s most celebrated performers. His band Big Shot made its name playing the music of Billy Joel for nearly two decades, and now DelGuidice and the band are living a dream. As of 2013, Billy Joel hired Mike to join his band, which also features longtime Big Shot member Tommy Byrnes.
JB Smoove – Saturday, November 13, 8 p.m.
A mainstay of the comedy stage, JB Smoove is perhaps best known as Leon in the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Darlene Love – Saturday, November 20, 8 p.m.
Darlene Love is the Queen of Rock and Soul with hits like “He’s a Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” all of which she sang during the glory days of the girl-group era.