“The theater is dark but the performing arts center is illuminated.”
That has been Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) Executive Director Julienne Penza-Boone‘s mission statement since the beginning of the pandemic. Penza-Boone, who took the reins at WHBPAC just as COVID-19 caused a worldwide shutdown, had no time to rest on her laurels. Instead, she pivoted. “How can we keep fulfilling our mission in the face of this?” she says. Initially, WHBPAC focused on Zoom experiences and partnered with film distributors to give patrons access to screenings and livestreams, but soon realized that, with warmer weather, people weren’t necessarily interested in watching videos at home all the time.
The center held their first drive-in concert the same night as the controversial Chainsmokers benefit concert, which made national headlines for breaking the rules and not following health and safety guidelines. Penza-Boone notes that “our concert was very orderly and lovely! People were able to have their lawn chairs in front of their cars to enjoy the show.” After the Chainsmokers debacle, WHBPAC held another concert—with added restrictions—and the event drew major praise from Governor Cuomo. “The Governor shouted it out at the press conference the following Monday!” Penza-Boone recalls. “And it was so great for our audience to see live music. That’s what we’re really known for. So to be able to deliver that to people was really special for us.”
WHBPAC is also known for its successful and popular educational programs, and they’ve been able to continue offering kids that same enrichment, albeit with a few adjustments. “We were a little nervous about how the kids would respond [to masks and social distancing], so we did cut the little guys out and started the program at second grade,” says Penza-Boone. “We felt confident that the kids would be able to handle social distancing. They were so overjoyed to be here. The takeaway is that this generation of children will never take that for granted. They’ll never take being able to participate in activities for granted again. They were so well behaved, it was crazy! They recognize now that it’s a privilege.”
Still, without the usual lineup of high-profile mainstage shows, a nonprofit arts organization like WHBPAC needs to find new ways to make money. Perhaps as an ironic, tongue-in-cheek response to the cardboard cut-out audience members spotted in sports stadiums, the center has started an “False Fall Festival” fundraiser in which patrons can purchase a “ticket” and have their face occupy a seat in the theater for livestreamed shows. “It’s a concert that doesn’t exist,” Penza-Boone explains. “You can buy at our average ticket price, so there’s three levels of tickets and when you donate we’ll ask for a JPEG of you and we’ll print it out and fill the theater with those heads. As long as people can’t be sitting in our auditorium seats you can be sitting in your seat until the theater reopens. It’s a cool, off-the-wall way to raise some money.”
Penza-Boone notes that the center has also been heavily involved in the ongoing Save Our Stages campaign, an initiative from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to urge the government to move forward on guidelines for reopening theaters and arts organizations. “Everyone on this staff calls the governor’s office every day. It’s mandatory,” she says. “We’re not demanding that theaters be open to 100 percent capacity but what we want is to at least have some guidelines. We’ve come up with plans on our end but we need the state to work with us and certainly as long as we’re not allowed to reopen, we’re going to need some help.”
Though the center doesn’t have a timeline for when they’ll be able to reopen, Penza-Boone is optimistic that things will get better, and points to the fact that Westhampton Beach was primed for a great year before COVID hit, with its sweeping Main Street renovations and tight-knit community. “That’s what makes this community very special,” she says. “Whether you’re a year-rounder or just here for the summer months, there is a real community fabric here. And you can’t deny that Westhampton Beach looks beautiful! It’s stunning. We know the comeback is going to be extraordinary.”