Bay Street Theater was always destined for greatness.
While it’s nearly a given that most every town on the East End has a theater of some kind that satisfies the cultural needs of its people, the folks at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street make it their mission to push the playhouse and cultural center to be a cut above the rest.
“I think we are at the highest level and the highest quality for performing arts centers in the entire area,” says Scott Schwartz, Bay Street’s artistic director for the past decade. A grandiose statement? Perhaps. But over the years, many of the productions that either premiered or were developed at Bay Street continued on to theaters in a little district known as Broadway, as well as Off-Broadway and abroad.
The theater works with members of Actors Equity, with casting done through New York City’s top agents and casting directors. “We pay everyone,” Schwartz says. “This allows us access to some amazing artists. We really like to be artist-driven and that’s reflected through the criteria for our theater programming.”
Operating as both a nonprofit, professional regional theater as well as a thriving cultural center on the South Fork for over three decades, Bay Street prides itself on producing personal, refreshing takes on beloved classics as well as showcasing uniquely crafted new works from contemporary artists 52 weeks of the year. A 299-seat playhouse, Bay Street additionally offers year-round musical acts, comedy shows, movie screenings, panel discussions and special talks, plus educational programs designed for both children and adults.
Born from the brains of Welsh actress Sybil Christopher, along with Emma Walton Hamilton (daughter of Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews) and her husband, Stephen Hamilton, the idea for a brick-and-mortar location dedicated to the creative inhabitants of the former whaling village came while they were sitting at the Corner Bar, located directly across the street from the future site of the playhouse.
“They thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a theater?’ ” says Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street’s executive director, finishing her sixteenth season this year. Christopher also had quite the Rolodex, Mitchell admits with a big smile, chock full of contacts and connections the world over. “If she called you, you answered.”
Together, the trio pooled their resources and retooled the warehouse-style building in downtown Sag Harbor, situated at the entrance to Long Wharf, which in its past lives housed a World War II munitions building, a roller rink and a popular nightclub. That was in 1991, and ever since Bay Street’s reputation as a cultural institution has maintained a permanent place in the lives of East End residents and beyond.
With an unwavering understanding of the importance of storytelling, their audience and their featured talent, Schwartz reminds that the theater serves as a mecca for new work development as well as a venue that brings in well-established voices. “We serve the area locally, year-round, as well as New York City, around the country and around the world, maintaining an intimate connection with living, breathing artists,” he says. “It’s a welcoming, warm connection and it’s essential to what makes us so important.”
Bay Street’s Title Wave New Works Festival, for which playwrights can submit full-length plays or musicals for consideration, kicks off the season and accepts up to 300 entries. For the next festival, submissions began pouring in this past Oct. 1. According to Schwartz, they hit the entry cap by Oct. 3, a mere two days later.
With Schwartz curating the play selections, including the four “Mainstage” productions Bay Street puts on throughout the year, which use paid Equity actors, Mitchell has made it her mission to “really focus” on the educational piece of the Bay Street Theater pie.
“I was horrified at the lack of performing of arts, particularly for kids, in local [school] curriculums,” Mitchell says. “It’s something every bit as important as learning English or math.” Thanks to her efforts, Bay Street now hosts theater camps designed for children ages 4 and up, a young playwrights program, summer college internships and developmental play workshops. Bay Street’s Literature Live program, now in its fifteenth year, is a free theatrical performance based on classic American literature designed specifically for students who are middle and high school age, complete with lesson plans for teachers to use in their respective classrooms.
Additionally, they offer sensory friendly performances designed for individuals with varying abilities, including autism, intellectual or developmental disabilities, deafness and sensory sensitivities.
“We want to make sure we’re communicating that we’re here for everyone,” Mitchell says. “We’re really trying to make sure people understand it’s not a ‘hoity toity’ place. It’s really for everybody.”