Guild Hall celebrates its landmark 90th anniversary this year, and has prepared a massive summer season and beyond to celebrate. With names such as Mercedes Ruehl, Harris Yulin, Bob Balaban, Alec Baldwin, G.E. Smith, Michael Urie, Mike Birbiglia, Laurie Anderson, Kathleen Chalfant and many others set to grace the theater during the summer season, Guild Hall’s 90th anniversary may be one of its biggest yet.
With an ambitious summer season that comes just as the country begins to heal in earnest from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan’s Papers spoke to Executive Director Andrea Grover, John Drew Theater Artistic Director Josh Gladstone and Chief Creative Officer Amy Kirwin about the storied East Hampton institution’s past, present and future.
Founded in 1930 after a dedication of land and financial gift by Mary Woodhouse, Guild Hall has always been interdisciplinary, with performing arts, education and a museum, which Grover and the team wanted to honor. “We’ve been working on a strategic plan since last year,” says Grover. “It really calls for acknowledging that Guild Hall was one of the first interdisciplinary centers in the country to combine a museum, a theater and education space in equal measure, and also that its civic role has been very prominent. It’s equal parts a civic center as it is an arts center.”
The arts world had to adapt in 2020, with most theaters shutting down and going virtual. This year, as pandemic restrictions are being eased, Gladstone has curated an expansive program of plays and musical performances to be conducted on the outdoor stage of the John Drew Backyard Theater. The 16-by-16 foot stage near the theater’s stage door will showcase the talents of major A-list actors and musicians who love performing for Guild Hall. “There are 90 years of built-up goodwill among artists,” says Gladstone, who notes that Guild Hall has always been a playground for artists. “We know where we are. We serve an East End community where you can’t go from driveway to driveway without bumping into an artist. They’re everywhere! They’re hanging out. Laurie Anderson lives up the block from me, for God’s sake. I just dropped scripts off in the mailbox of Talia Balsam and John Slattery. That’s always been the case for Guild Hall.”
Kirwin, an arts veteran in the Hamptons, having worked with Southampton Arts Center for many years, was brought in to help the team form a singular and unified vision. “This was a really great time to be brought into the team and a perfect time for me to join in this new role to create a cohesive message about our 90 years and the strength of the past, the excitement of the present and the incredible future we have being on the forefront of the arts,” she says.
Grover adds, “Guild Hall has a great culture and great brand recognition. Performing or exhibiting at Guild Hall is not that far from Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. It doesn’t have the square footage but it is almost a parallel history to those most storied institutions. It’s at an incredibly human scale where it’s appropriate for this moment where we want to have direct contact with other humans. So the thought of going to a little theater feels a lot more healing and transformative than going into an arena.”
That Guild Hall is celebrating such a massive milestone in the midst of a pandemic is in keeping with the theater’s history. “Guild Hall opened at the height of the Great Depression. So Mrs. Woodhouse’s gift was magnanimous. Everything that’s spawned here is committee-run, and those committees were often the artists themselves. Mary Woodhouse was extremely modest. In 1931, she said all of two sentences and had to be sort of forced to do it. It was not a vanity project. It came out of this sense of civic responsibility to give back some of the success her family had enjoyed.”
Guild Hall is also preparing a short documentary produced by Matador Productions, as well as a book about the center’s history. “The past 90 years are preparing us for this anniversary and the pandemic has been making us rethink how we make everything happen,” says Grover. “So it’s lighter fluid for the fire.”
In June, Guild Hall will begin its outdoor Play in the Garden theater series with live performances at 8 p.m., for a limited audience/Lawn Circle seats (to also be livestreamed/made available online). The series will showcase works of Edward Albee, Kurt Vonnegut, Wendy Wasserstein and Tom Wolfe (Albee was Artistic Director of Guild Hall’s theater in the 1970s, Vonnegut, Wasserstein and Wolfe were also involved with Guild Hall during their careers and all four are members of Guild Hall’s Academy of the Arts). The series starts with a Weekend of Wasserstein, featuring two works from the celebrated playwright, from June 4–5. June 11 will be a staged reading of Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, the storied author’s first play from 1970 that was later adapted into a film in 1971. The series will continue with Michael Urie and his partner, Ryan Spahn, starring in Albee’s seminal classic The Zoo Story from July 8–11, A Night with the Wolfe on July 23 celebrates Tom Wolfe. Five-time Tony winner and Academy of the Arts member Susan Stroman will direct three unique live theater events August 27–29, and Labor Day Weekend, September 3–4, will be the premiere of new play Crisis in Queens by Joy Behar. On September 16–18 will be Temptation and Other Tales: An Evening of One-Acts written and directed by Lyle Kessler starring Richard Kind, Raye and Sawyer Spielberg and Margaret Ladd.
Other events include an outdoor film screening series featuring films inspired by or directly connected to the artists and exhibitions on view, including Life of Pi (June 12; Alexis Rockman provided the inspirational drawings for director Ang Lee), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (July 10), and Johnny Mnemonic (August 14; directed by Robert Longo whose exhibition begins the week before); the return of the popular Stirring the Pot culinary series with Florence Fabricant; the 75th annual Clothesline Art Sale on July 24 from 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; a star-studded Summer Gala on August 6 and 90th Birthday Celebration on August 19. The summer will also feature fun events for kids and families including Saturday Family Workshops from June 12–July 10 and August 14–September 4 at noon, a variety of KidFEST events July 7, July 21, August 11 and September 1, Burn the Stage: Teen Open Mic Night on May 29 and June 18 at 8 p.m. with Guild Hall Teen Arts Council, and the GATHER series July 16–July 19 featuring conversations led by Black and Indigenous change-makers.
With over 40 new paintings and works on paper, Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks (June 12–July 26), curated by Guild Hall’s Executive Director Andrea Grover, will look at the world’s waterways as a network by which all of world history has traveled. Robert Longo: A House Divided (August 7–October 17) is a special, two-part exhibition featuring images that represent both how America was once perceived—as a country at the peak of its power and influence—and images that echo its current state of chaos and conflict. And starting on October 30, Guild Hall will launch its 90th Selections from the Permanent Collection.
For more information about Guild Hall, visit guildhall.org.