Save Our Stages: A New Act for East End Performing Arts in 2021

See Love Letters at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead
Suffolk Theater in Riverhead
Oliver Peterson

For East End performing arts venues that have been shuttered since March due to the pandemic, there’s new hope in the form of the recently passed Save Our Stages Act, part of the latest stimulus bill. A bipartisan act first introduced by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Texas Senator John Coryn and shepherded by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), Save Our Stages will provide funding to performing arts centers and hopefully pave the way for a more musical and artistic 2021.

The Save Our Stages Act provides $10 billion to arts organizations, who can receive a grant of up to 45 percent of their 2019 revenue. This is a potentially huge boon to an industry that has largely been dark for the better part of a year. Part of the bill also includes special funding for businesses with less than 50 employees, which will be particularly helpful to beloved venues like Suffolk Theater and Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC), relatively small theaters that are successful because of their big hearts and dedicated patrons.

Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater, an innovative space known for its year-round lineup of music, comedy and variety shows with a full bar and restaurant, was hit particularly hard when it had to shut down. “It’s been a crazy year,” says General and Artistic Director Daniel Binderman. “We had shows just disrupted, a full calendar of many, many months and our shows…we’ve had a lot of audience members be very patient with us because everything on our calendar had to move and often our shows had to move multiple times.”

For WHBPAC’s Executive Director Julienne Penza-Boone, who officially assumed the position in March 2020 after a stint as Interim Executive Director, the Save Our Stages Act is sure to be something of a relief after more than a year of putting out forest fires. Penza-Boone first had to deal with how to keep ticket sales afloat when Westhampton Beach was going through major disruptive construction, and was then faced with the unexpected and unprecedented pandemic. “Our mantra was just to keep going,” she says. “We kept looking forward to that mission—how can we bring high quality arts to our community? We never stopped our fundraising efforts. For me as executive director, it pushed me to forge our own path. This forced me to find my own leadership.”

As the application process for the grants hasn’t even started yet, the theaters are hesitant to talk about their specific plans, but both Suffolk Theater and WHBPAC are, first and foremost, concerned with paying their staff and keeping the lights on. “This industry is all about community and it’s been devastating to people who work in our industry,” says Binderman. “There are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on this. It’s been directly difficult for the artists, the technicians, the sound techs, the crew, everybody. There are a lot of us.”

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts CenterBarbara Lassen

“The truth of the matter is, people want to work. They want to employ their crews. The economic impact is huge,” adds Penza-Boone, who made sure her staff was at the forefront of pushing for federal funding. “Advocacy became a huge piece of what we do and our Director of Sales, Allison Frost, was relentless. She was really calling the governor’s office every day. A lot of times, the arts aren’t really known for their advocacy and getting rough in the mud, and it had to happen.” WHBPAC is a 429-seat theater, and Penza-Boone acknowledges that it’s very hard to book the high-end talent they’re known for—Jay Leno and Broadway icon Laura Benanti are among the stars booked for later in 2021—without filling the entire house. “Depending on what we’ll receive, I think this could really help us to socially distance our audiences. Some of the PPE that will be required. The beauty of the bill as it was submitted, there’s a lot of flexibility [in spending].”

Suffolk Theater hopes the money from Save Our Stages will help recoup the costs of previously booked acts. “I will tell you, our business starts with putting out money,” says Binderman. “We put it out as a deposit to the act, in preparing for the show, our staff prepares and markets the show and it has an office, insurance, all these things in preparation for shows. We pay first and recoup after…I am grateful that congress put a spotlight on us, so to speak, and did what they did.”

While there are many performing arts centers on the East End and all are in competition in some form or another, there’s a camaraderie that they all share. “I am grateful to the venues throughout eastern Long Island. All of the venues are to be commended,” says Binderman. Penza-Boone echoes the sentiment, noting that WHBPAC has rejoined the Hamptons Arts Network, an group that connects many organizations throughout the Hamptons and North Fork. “They’re a wonderful resource for us,” she says.

So for 2021, the outlook for the arts is a little brighter thanks to Save Our Stages. “We’re going to see where the winter takes us and where the Save Our Stages Act really takes us,” Penza-Boone says. “We’re just approaching with optimism and business as usual.”

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