It seems like only yesterday when Suffolk Theater fans blinked and there was suddenly a new executive director in place — with Gary Hygom recently stepping in to replace eight-year director Dan Binderman. And Hygom is fast at work re-envisioning the theater with a more diverse series of programming, a new dinner theater model and an emphasis on bolstering the downtown Riverhead community.
Throughout his 35 years in the professional theater industry, Hygom has directed a number of Long Island venues in some capacity, including BroadHollow Theatre Company, Guild Hall, Bay Street Theater and Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts. During his nearly 20-year stint at Bay Street, a largely summer gig in the early 2000s, he also served as tour manager for singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow — an experience he feels taught him “all the lessons I needed to know about the music industry.”
His last position at Patchogue Theatre ended abruptly when the staff was laid off in the early months of the pandemic, but luckily his familiarity with Binderman put him on the Suffolk Theater owners’ radar when the director announced his leaving last fall.
“I’m thrilled to be here, especially after the mess that was Patchogue. It’s good to have a new home,” Hygom says, adding, “I think Suffolk Theater has become almost one of the best-kept secrets on Long Island. It is such a unique venue — a beautiful Art Deco venue, and that has been talked about quite a bit — design-wise, it’s spectacular, the history of it is spectacular. But as a venue to come see a show, there is nothing like it on Long Island.”
Of his many goals for Suffolk Theater, Hygom expresses the most urgent desire to mix up the venue’s roster of acts and the limited number of genres they perform.
“I have a few goals, but first and foremost is to diversify what we do here,” he says. “Dan Binderman, my predecessor, really found a great niche for the theater in presenting a lot of ’60s and early ’70s genre music, with some departures. … What I want to do is grow that, expand on that and really start to bring in jazz — there is a blues market here, which is really exciting — but expand to newer and more different forms of rock ’n’ roll, expand country more and really start to bring in family and children’s programming. There’s just not a lot of that on the island, and I think that’s a market that’s way underserved.”
A fan of traditional theater performances, Hygom hopes to introduce small, intimate pieces of theater by local talent in the coming months, serving as a stepping stone until Suffolk Theater can one day realize their long-drawn-out blueprints for an expanded stage, dressing rooms, loading dock and everything else needed for full-scale theatrical productions. Before the eventual redesign, patrons can expect improved lighting and sound systems in the near future.
Helping to introduce film and concert series to Bay Street during his tenure there, Hygom also sees a need for a wide variety of series to be introduced to Suffolk — from shows featuring local musicians to comedy and films.
“I’m a huge fan of those because it’s just so much easier for people to relate to — they can look at one series because that’s what they love — and because it very obviously shows the diversity of the venue at one quick glance,” he explains. But Suffolk Theater is more than your typical venue, with its dining service setting the “full-blown theater” apart from its Long Island contemporaries, so its series will also take advantage of this aspect. Hygom proposes a round-the-world supper club series, with themed evenings blending the music and cuisine of different cultures (i.e. an Irish band and meal on St. Patrick’s Day).
“The venue itself can add in such a big way to the experience of the show that most places can’t do … everything rests on the shoulders of the performers and the interaction they have with an audience,” he says. “Here, you can really augment and support that with food or creating a different environment in some way. It’s kind of fun, and it’s really forcing me to rethink and examine how concerts and theater are presented to an audience and how to do them in different ways. … I really thrive on that. I love the challenge of it.”
On the topic of food, the dining aspect is already in transition under Hygom’s leadership with the goal being something equally satisfying but more logistically feasible given the venue’s flexible 430 to 650 seats. The new model will replace large entrees and steak dinners with small plates, such as appetizers and desserts, which will allow Suffolk’s chefs-in-residence to deliver food to audience members faster. Hygom is in talks with the Suffolk County Community College Culinary School and several local restaurants about potential partnerships for the small plates, but until the new model is ready to launch, the venue is offering snack concessions in addition to their full bar and cocktail menu.
One key reason for Hygom’s decision to scale back the dining menu is a desire to support the downtown Riverhead community. With great restaurants like Tweed’s, Jerry & the Mermaid, Cliff’s Rendezvous and Spicy’s dotted along Main Street, Suffolk Theater patrons are now encouraged to enjoy dinner (and maybe a bit of shopping) before coming to the venue for dessert and a show. Ideally, patrons would make a day of their trip to Riverhead with stops at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum, Long Island Aquarium, Long Island Science Center or East End Arts, as well.
Hygom’s desire to bolster Riverhead alongside Suffolk Theater is clear, and it’s all part of his “imperative” goal to be a greater part of the community, like a “modern-day meetinghouse,” willing to host town press conferences and forums, sports and award show viewing parties, charity galas and more.
“I learned this lesson years ago at Bay Street, and it flourished even more in my time at Patchogue, that venues need to support the town or village around them,” he says. “That’s a big goal of mine in Riverhead. This town has struggled for many years, and it is experiencing what I think is the cusp of a real resurgence. It’s an exciting time for Riverhead. It was a thriving town in its day; when I was a kid, this is where we came to shop. Then everything kind of moved to Route 58 with shopping malls, Tangers, K-Marts and such. They are working to bring that back and make Main Street unique.”
He adds, “This Main Street has all the makings for a really exciting, thriving place, and I think we have to be a huge part of that and really help drive that.”
To learn more about Suffolk Theater, visit suffolktheater.com.