Wednesday night, May 19, was like a soft rain on a parched desert. Pods of people sat inside The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett and listened while local legends Nancy Atlas and Inda Eaton regaled the audience (about a fifth of what it would normally be) with tunes and tales.
For many, it was their first time inside a venue in a long, long while. A lot of local hubs came up with clever ways to stay open, at least partially, with outdoor events (like the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Sag Harbor Cinema hosting drive-in movies last summer, or Guild Hall’s “Play in the Garden”). But with restrictions easing and vaccinations rising, many more of the East End institutions are starting to open up, and both the people behind the scenes and in front of the microphones couldn’t be happier.
“I wrote a song a few years back, with the ironic title ‘Please Don’t Dance,’” says Gene Casey. “Never did I realize that I would actually have to tell audiences to stay in their seats, six feet apart, masked.”
Casey, known as one of the hardest-working singer-songwriters on the East End, with upwards of 150 gigs in a regular year, “As of this writing we have done exactly three gigs this year in front of live audiences, and for us it’s been like astronauts returning to Earth,” he continues. “Grateful, celebratory.”
Anne Chaisson, executive director of HIFF, says that starting June 2, the film festival will be screening movies in East Hampton’s Herrick Park every Wednesday.
But places like The Talkhouse, which has an indoor stage and not a lot of room outdoors, is open but with protocols in place.
“We have been open for the past month, following all state-mandated COVID safety requirements such as mandatory seating, distancing, curfews and masks for entry and exit,” says Nick Kraus, a partner in The Stephen Talkhouse. “As the state relaxes these requirements we will follow their guidance. Our first priority has always been to have our customers, staff and talent feel safe and comfortable during these extraordinary times. We look forward to things getting back to ‘normal,’ whatever that means, and hope to see everyone on the dance floor soon.”
Rachel Bosworth at the Southampton Arts Center reports that the cultural institution “continues to follow all New York State and CDC guidelines for all programs and events,” which includes an upcoming cocktail party, “WHIMSY in the Garden” on June 25. At Southampton Cultural Center, concerts are starting up again, using Agawam Park right across the street.
Over at Guild Hall, the John Drew Theater’s artistic director Josh Gladstone is enthusiastic about the summer lineup, which continues to utilize outdoor spaces. “The performing arts are bounding back at Guild Hall with an amazingly creative summer celebration of our 90th season,” he says. “We’ve got exclusive, star-studded virtual content with artists like Angelique Kidjo, Bill Irwin and Salman Rushdie, as well as shows popping up everywhere from our parking lot out to the edge of Gardiner’s Bay.” The “Play in the Garden” series creates an intimate space for audience members to enjoy theater; “just pack your beach chairs and blanket,” Gladstone says.
Lynn Blue, another singer-songwriter with upcoming gigs, offered up her thoughts on live music after lockdown. “Music is so powerful; it brings people together and it brings people joy,” she says. “After a year of isolation and at times conflict, it’s more than a relief—it’s a thrill to get to play again. We are all vaccinated and so grateful for our health and for the great care the venues we work with have taken to ensure everyone’s well-being.”
She continues, “When you think about what you missed last year, what I missed last year—it was people. Performing. Fun! That’s what live music is!”
A few bands and songwriters have become innovative–like The Belle Curves’ Delaney Hafener, also of 88.3 WLIW-FM, who transformed her Brookhaven barn into a magical, twinkling live music venue for small get-togethers.
“In June last year, we started a small, casual, private house concert series where we invited some of our many musician friends to play open-mic style,” she says. “This summer, we’re doing so again but with a little more planning and formality. We’re having full bands this time, followed by an open acoustic jam. It’s been a blessing to be able to host musicians and music lovers for safe, spacious outdoor performances after going so long without those kinds of experiences.”
Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater is opening again, with “Sinatra” over Memorial Day weekend, and upcoming shows featuring everyone from Steve Earle to Joe Piscopo. On June 18, the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is bring Keb’ Mo’ to town, with other acts—and a repeat of “Beachstock” on the Great Lawn—to come.
Gene Casey, who will be playing outdoors, for now, every Thursday at the East Hampton Clubhouse, waxed philosophical. “The lockdown, if nothing else, taught us the value of human interaction, and how much music plays a part in people’s social life, the contact, the community and back-and-forth dynamic of an audience and performer,” he says. “It’s quite powerful and quite essential to well-being. But,” he adds, “I am not sure how ‘back to normal’ indoor venues will be—or allowed to be—for a while.”