Post COVID, Julienne Penza-Boone Leads WHBPAC into a New Day

WHBPAC Executive Director Julienne Penza-Boone
WHBPAC Executive Director Julienne Penza-Boone

Sometime in the past–perhaps in the earliest days of modern man–members of a clan or tribe would assemble to listen to one of their own tell stories. They would listen seemingly with one ear, each enveloped in the exact words and tales. Although life was dangerous and primitive, the stories would bring them all together to the same place.

It continues to this day, a storyteller standing before an audience, on a stage, taking the people on a journey, whether in the prose of Shakespeare, the fast-talking one-person shows, the majesty of dance or the ethereal and commanding sounds of orchestras or acoustic guitars.

Technology has changed, but the primal need to gather together for the same purpose will always remain.

“When audiences enter a theatre, they are agreeing on a social contract, to be together and be a part of a performance,” said Julienne Penza-Boone, the Executive Director of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) in Westhampton. “We need shared experiences.”

Penza-Boone is energized, and her enthusiasm for the arts, and especially for arts education, is instantly infectious, as performance art often will be for those who pursue their love of acting, dance, music, or comedy. Unfortunately, the theater bug bites hard and usually bites early.

As a first-grader in her native Massachusetts, Penza-Boone sang a song in a talent show. “It was the first time I heard applause, and that was it for life.”

She sought out the hectic, unpredictable life of an actor. While the fire burned in her heart, along the way practicality and a shift in her interests put her on a new path.

“I was always a free spirit and always considered myself an actor, but I was raised in an environment of stability,” she laughs. “I like the idea of building something, and the life of an actor does not match with stability.”

Penza-Boone turned her attention to performing arts administration and education, and in 2008 the road led her to the WHBPAC.

It was a pivotal time for her and WHBPAC. Even while the financial crisis that crippled the economy had set in, WHBPAC was in a growth mode and focusing its attention on its burgeoning arts education program. As Arts Academy Director, Julienne instituted WHBPAC’s year-round after-school programs, designed innovative summer programs, created a highly-acclaimed arts program for senior citizens, and has directed over twenty productions for tweens, teens, and elders.

The programs flourished.

“There is something so important about theatre and the arts for young people. It is a communal experience,” said Penza-Boone. “When they are together, working on a show, they put down their phones and concentrate on each other. The same is true of the adults who come to engage with the world-class artists on our stage.”

In 2019, Penza-Boone was named as interim Executive Director. After several months, the Board of Directors named her Executive Director. The WHBPAC was going strong; their programs, audiences were growing. But early in her tenure, the world changed when the COVID-19 pandemic seized the world, and every theatre in New York and across the world closed.

Penza-Boone and her staff refused to stop promoting the WHBPAC and its programs. The pandemic would not keep them from their mission.

“Early on we made the decision to do everything we could to keep people working, and we did,” said Penza-Boone.

The WHBPAC went virtual, streaming performances and education programs. They hired Broadway actors, now out of work, to hold virtual master classes and prepared for the eventual reopening of the theatre.

Under Julienne’s leadership, WHBPAC has weathered COVID through creativity and innovation – presenting two drive-in concerts in summer of 2020, drive-in films, live-streamed concerts from the WHBPAC stage, socially distanced classes and camps, and outdoor concerts in summer of 2021 including Seth Meyers and Jefferson Starship.

As COVID regulations began to lift, the WHBPAC responded.

“We took advantage every time there was a lessening of the restrictions,” Penza-Boone said.

The theatre has welcomed patrons safely back indoors with robust and diverse fall offerings.

The WHBPAC also responded to the social changes that began to take hold in the country. “During our nation’s reckoning with race in our country, we took the opportunity to take a look at ourselves and see what we could be doing better to be more inclusive,” said Penza-Boone.

She oversaw the creation of a cultural equity committee that meets every other month. The diverse group looks at ways the WHBPAC can interact and provide additional education and entertainment to a broader audience. They have also partnered with the Butterfly

Effect Project. This nonprofit, community-oriented organization empowers young girls by giving them the tools to achieve emotionally stable and self-confident futures to bring forth a generation of strong, independent, and knowledgeable women.

Thanks to a generous gift by the James and Marjorie Kuhn Foundation, WHBPAC is offering several after-school and evening theatre and film programs for the Butterflies and their families.

All of these things add up to one thing: community. Through her love of the arts, and the dedication of her staff, volunteers and Board of Directors, Penza-Boone continues to pursue her love of theatre and education. Her commitment is no act.

“I have the best job on the planet,” said Penza-Boone. “Leading the WHBPAC is a dream come true. Live performance is a shared, essential experience at every level, and that need will never go away.”

Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.

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