Arts organizations rely on their audience and communities to thrive. With the quarantine preventing theaters from having events, groups have had to adapt quickly to survive. Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) has introduced a lineup of virtual programming to continue its mission of enriching the arts community of the East End under the stewardship of Executive Director Julienne Penza, who discusses the unique new approach the organization is taking.
How is WHBPAC adapting to the new normal?
What has been really helpful for us in this moment of uncertainty has been to look to our mission—to serve our patrons by providing a greater understanding and appreciation of the arts and meeting the cultural aspirations of the area—and to enrich the community’s quality of life. Traditionally, we’ve done that through live performances and classes, but now we’re figuring out how to continue that mission under these new circumstances. Our staff is incredibly creative and collaborative, and while we’re obviously adhering to all of the Pause New York guidelines, we are connected all day via the magic of technology and continue to come up with new ideas to keep fulfilling that mission.
Tell us about your virtual programming initiative. How did you go about curating a suitable lineup of programs?
It started by looking at what we were forced to cancel—how could we still deliver these programs in some way to the patrons who were so looking forward to performances? So we started with a Virtual Arts Festival, using Facebook to broadcast videos of the artists who were supposed to appear on stage in March and April. And then, as we began to discover the power and ease of Zoom, we realized we could continue some of our programming, like our wildly popular Songwriting Circle and our Moment program, which connects patrons with experts across a variety of fields…it made perfect sense to transition those programs to a virtual setting. We’ve also been exploring the resources that exist right in our backyard. We have recently developed a Community Council made up of dynamic professionals—this includes podcast host Kate Shumacher of Pop Fiction Women…so we reached out to her and asked how the theatre and the podcast could collaborate, resulting in “Sip and Watch,” a natural progression from our “Sip and Speak” and “Sip and Sing” programs. Lastly, film has always been a vital piece of our programming, and so we’ve begun offering film exclusives that patrons can stream right to their devices at home.
How are you adapting your educational programs to a virtual setting?
We were in the midst of our spring semester, working on three different shows with our students when the pandemic struck, and we have put those programs on pause. We’re not formally holding classes via Zoom, because we find those kinds of formats not conducive to arts learning when you have a cast of 30 7–10 year olds. Instead, our Arts Academy Director Kristen Poulakis has been checking in with students one on one, giving lessons, holding informal rehearsals with our older students, and providing our students with opportunities to keep performing. We broadcast lots of student submissions during our Virtual Arts Festival, and they were a huge hit! We’ll also be offering open mic sessions to continue giving our students moments to shine, virtually.
Why are the arts so important in times of crisis and upheaval?
The arts really serve two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, they provide us with an escape, a breath of fresh air in times of crisis and uncertainty. They force us to live in the moment, and can take worry away and uplift us as long as we’re engaging with the art. On the other side, the arts foster self-examination, reflect truths about the human condition, and encourage empathy and compassion – and as we all decide who we want to be in this crisis, that can be incredibly helpful.
How is WHBPAC looking to the future?
We are thinking positively, and want to be a beacon of positivity for our patrons. As the situation continues to evolve, so will our plans. Every day, we are proactively developing different scenarios, looking at potential timelines, and applying for every program and grant possible to sustain us.
How can patrons help support WHBPAC during the quarantine?
All of the virtual programming we’re offering right now is offered free of charge, but we’re hoping that people will donate to the theatre. These are extremely challenging times for performing arts venues, and donations will be critical to sustain the work that we do and carry us through these difficult months. We can only continue our mission with the support of our community!
Learn more about WHBPAC’s upcoming virtual programs at whbpac.org.