Stars of the screen and stage. Virtuosos of voice and iconic masters of myriad music. Comedic gems who get an entire room guffawing. We’re not talking about the tidal wave of talent 80 or so miles to the west; we’re talking about the Westhampton Performing Arts Center right here on the South Fork, just hitting its stride at 25.
“In 25 years, WHBPAC has grown from a fledgling enterprise to bona fide cultural beacon on the East End of Long Island,” says executive director Julienne Penza-Boone. “This is due in no small part to our community, our board of directors, our donors, our patrons, our students and our volunteers. We like to say that we are a world-class theater with community roots.”
There’s plenty of evidence to back that statement up. Be it a riveting performance by Broadway and film darling Kristen Chenoweth, a raw and resounding set from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams or a hard-practiced performance from young, local aspiring thespians involved in the theater’s Nancy and Frederick DeMatteis Arts Academy, WHBPAC punches above and beyond its weight class as the premiere arts-centric theater of the Hamptons.
WHBPAC was erected as a movie house in 1933, and remained so until it shuttered in 1996. Buoyed by a dream of bringing the arts to Main Street, a group of concerned citizens led by Len Conway, Lon Sabella and Cynthia and Neal Hochman purchased the building in 1997 for $300,000 and relaunched as the not-for-profit Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on July 4, 1998.
“It’s a big part of the revitalization of Westhampton Beach. People were saying, ‘What’s there for families to do? Why don’t we have more arts and culture in the area?’ ” says Heather Draskin, the theater’s director of marketing and communications. “It spurred them to create the organization, buying the theater and turning it into the driver of change for the whole town.”
It’s not a stretch to call Westhampton Beach the gateway to the South Fork, as the first “Hampton” you hit on the drive east — a big factor in the town’s ongoing revitalization led by Mayor Maria Moore. And WHBPAC is the gleaming neon jewel in the crown, with some recent sprucing up, thanks to funds from a 2018 New York State Council on the Arts capital grant. That financial shot in the arm paid to re-stucco the exterior, replace the neon, paint and polish, and add LED elements for increased sustainability to the original marquee. .
Penza-Boone took the helm in April 2020, just in time to take on the not-small task of shepherding a very public-facing, humans-necessary organization through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She steered the ship right through COVID,” says Draskin. “But we stayed open!” Penza-Boone managed to keep all nine full-time employees working without furloughing anyone, and moved the programming to either virtual or safe-outdoor performances on Westhampton Beach’s Great Lawn.
“When I took the reins of the theater, I knew that the demographics of our audience were changing, but the pandemic really sped that change up — and changed the live performing arts industry. From the expense of touring musical acts to generational shifts in our population to the national conversation on race and who’s being served by our programs — these are the conversations we’re having at the theater all the time,” says Penza-Boone. “When I think about the next 25 years, I see a theater that is inclusive of all the people who live on the East End — diverse audiences that will be drawn in by dynamic programming.”
Dynamic, it is. There are no bad spots in the intimate, 425-seat theater, its grand red-velvet curtains parting to welcome world-class performances in what they call the three pillars: comedy, Broadway and music. The summer, of course, is a bustling time at the theater, but WHBPAC is open seven days a week all year round, hosting up to 60 performances annually by bold-face acts; new, up-and-coming talent; and the 10,000 students who participate in their Arts Education programs.
“The theater is so vital to this community. Twenty-five years ago, it was created to revitalize downtown Westhampton Beach — and when we look at how gorgeous the Village is, how family-oriented, the restaurants that are full on every show night, it’s clear that the theater has met the aspirations of the incredible individuals who had that original vision,” says Penza-Boone. “Whether through initiatives like our Holiday Stroll, which drives business to Main Street, or a daytime music program for differently abled students and their caregivers, or our Cultural Equity Council — we take our role in serving our community very seriously.”