Suffolk Theater is in a state of evolution, including behind-the-scenes restructuring and many programming changes. The beautiful space is about to have a creative—and financial—renaissance. Anna Maria Villa, who joined the Riverhead landmark establishment as general manager in July, has a strong vision that she hopes will enrich the community and solidify the Suffolk Theater as the centerpiece of Main Street.
Born in Italy and raised in Rochester, New York, Villa has been all over, and has had a diverse career in the arts. “I’ve been in love with the arts since I was little,” says Villa. “I always wanted to sing, dance and act. [The arts] afflict you right when you’re born. I went to Italy in 1980, and I started professionally in 1981–82 and worked with the National Theatre Company and the Children’s National Theatre Company, and it snowballed from there.” Villa notes that her various jobs in the arts have prepared her well for her current position. “I was a video journalist and producer, director…there’s pretty much not one job that I can’t do in this theater.” When Villa returned to the States, she found herself on Long Island, working for Lou Saxon Music Video & Entertainment, where the late Saxon became a mentor to her. “At one point Lou encouraged me to go back to school to get my American degree,” she explains, “Because he said you can’t make money in the entertainment field! So I got a degree in marketing and public relations.”
Villa first started working with the Suffolk Theater back in May as a consultant to owners Bob and Dianne Castaldi, and was brought on as General Manager soon after. “When I first came onboard I did an evaluation for them, and things weren’t going the way they wanted. Now, [my priorities] have been to reorganize the staff, restructure the operations…It’s very important when you set up a theater. There are always a lot of identity crises, PR crises; we have to run this theater as an arts organization and a business.” Villa mentions the theater’s restaurant as an example. “The restaurant and the bar need to be a benefit for us,” she explains, stopping to compliment Chef Bernardo Menendez on the job he’s done so far.
One of the first moves Villa made as General Manager was to streamline the programming, cutting most of the weeknight performances due to lukewarm ticket sales. “We’re going to focus on weddings and corporate events Monday through Thursday, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings we’re focusing on fewer, but bigger, shows. I want to have a balance.”
Villa’s business sense is complemented by her artistic passion. “This theater has a heart. It was born in 1933 and it’s been here through thick and thin,” she marvels. This theater chose [the Castaldis], not the other way around. They haven’t let go and won’t let go until they see it thrive and succeed. My vision here is that it is the performers’ place, because I’m also a performer. For me, it’s important that the performers are treated properly, that we work with them so you can give them the best show. I really want them to feel like they can spread their wings.”
Villa is confident that these goals can be achieved. “I have a staff that’s awesome. They also see this as a vision, as a journey, as something that they want to build, grow and be a part of it.” And, Villa says with excitement building in her voice, “It’s important that the programming, little by little, becomes richer in content; I want to enrich the lives of the community in Riverhead. This is their centerpiece.”
The Suffolk Theater has a growing roster of performances and events upcoming. For more information, go to suffolktheater.com.