When you look at the Tony-winning actors, Grammy-winning recording artists and A-list comedians who have graced the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) stage over the years, it’s impossible not to look at the temporarily darkened theater without a whiff of sadness. But, as new Executive Director Julienne Penza-Boone puts it, “Even though the stage is dark, the theater is illuminated.” With a strong lineup of virtual programming and educational programs, WHBPAC continues to be a strong arts organization for East Enders to learn from and enjoy.
“What became really comforting was to look at our mission statement and say, ‘What are we here to do? We’re here to uplift people through the arts and how can we do that without having 425 people stand shoulder to shoulder?’ So that’s kind of guided us,” Penza-Boone explains. Some of the programs on offer naturally lent themselves to Zoom, like the weekly Songwriting Circle. “People submit their lyrics, and the lyrics come up on the screen share, people play one at a time and our facilitator gives feedback.” There are also master classes with Broadway performers. “With Broadway dark, suddenly we have access to Tony nominees!” she says, noting that the Wicked Musical Director Dan Micciche will be giving a workshop. Other upcoming programs include a virtual adaptation of WHBPAC’s long-running series The Moment, which connects participants with experts from various fields outside the arts. “How can we use The Moment to help people participate in self-care? We’ve moved it to Zoom and had people talk about yoga, fitness, interior design…we’re kind of building the plane as we’re flying it.” For all the streaming and virtual shows, WHBPAC has invested in new camera equipment to optimize quality.
Penza-Boone assumed the role of Executive Director in April, which was not the most opportune time to start steering such a gargantuan ship, but she was up for the challenge. “I came to WHBPAC 12 years ago and I had just come out of grad school and I was in theater education. It was pretty niche—I wanted to work in the education department of a theater and that was at the height of the recession,” she explains. “But because I’ve been with the organization for so long, I feel like I really know the community. It felt sort of natural to move into the spot with that understanding. I’m all about forward motion. It was a crazy time, it’s not how I anticipated moving into the position but it’s also allowed me to sort of forge a new path instead of following the steps that have kept us successful for the last 20 years. We have to reexamine things.”
As for education, Penza-Boone is particularly excited about the upcoming virtual offerings. “We have a huge education program, and we’re optimistic we can run camps this summer, albeit in a different way,” she explains. “We’ll keep our class sizes small. It’s important for kids to have something to do after being trapped in their homes. So if we’re allowed, we’ll offer those opportunities,” The theater is also planning a big fundraising push for the Arts Academy.
Penza-Boone believes in the power of the arts to bring solace and hope in a dark time. “We have to engage in the art,” she says. “When we’re in the moment of watching something, we’re able to escape and feel good. Live performance teaches us to be in the moment.” Most of all, though, WHBPAC will continue to be a positive force in the community. “That’s what’s important to us—remaining a beacon of positivity for our patrons. We want to keep it positive. That’s what the arts are supposed to do.”
For more on WHBPAC’s virtual programming, visit whbpac.org.