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Hamptons Life

Sep 15, 2009 12:37 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Back to the wall, Bay Street prepares an appeal

Sep 15, 2009 12:37 PM

Last fall, when the country’s economy was taking one massive hit after another, the leadership at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor agreed on a belt-tightening strategy intended to take them through the tough times ahead.

“We did such good work last fall,” recalled general manager Tracy Mitchell, who spoke last week of the measures taken to assure financial stability at the theater—and of their disappointing results.

“We cut the budget 25 percent,” she went on, eliminating “job fluff” and paring down to the “five of us who run the place.”

Ms. Mitchell was following up on an urgent public appeal for support that is currently reaching the mailboxes and in-boxes of potential contributors throughout the region. The appeal notes that Bay Street has “never engaged in a public appeal like this before” and goes on to stress that the unprecedented step was dictated by the gravity of the situation.

Overcoming a reluctance to importune, the signers warn that “to keep the doors of Bay Street open and continue our tradition of performing arts excellence to Eastern Long Island, we need your help.”

Clearly, the impact of the recession on the 2008-09 season was even greater than anyone at Bay Street had anticipated.

“We were down by 25 to 30 percent on every single line item,” said Ms. Mitchell, “ticket sales, fund-raising, grants, individual donations, foundations.”

That everything was down was in a way reassuring, Ms. Mitchell suggested, since the wholesale drop obviously reflected the general economic distress rather than any lapse in the quality or creativity of Bay Street’s productions and programs.

The theater’s August production of “Dames at Sea,” for example, received “great reviews” said Ms. Mitchell. She pointed out that Newsday, the local newspapers and even John Simon, “who never says anything good about anything” had praised the production.

Yet, despite the good press, “We just couldn’t get bodies in,” lamented Ms. Mitchell. Even when Target, a loyal corporate supporter, rode to the rescue, sponsoring twofers on tickets as part of its mission to encourage family participation, “we had half-empty houses,” she said.

Not even the star power of 
Mercedes Ruehl, who appeared earlier in the summer in “Dinner,” managed to loosen the purse strings of those who Ms. Mitchell believes would have filled the 299-seat house in better times.

“We couldn’t sell it out,” said Ms. Mitchell. “In any other season, normally the minute the press hits, you get the bump, especially with Mercedes Ruehl. We knew the giving would be down, but this really came as more of a shock.”

Like Murphy Davis, one of two artistic directors—the other is Sybil Christopher, and managing 
director for development Julie Fitzgerald, who both spoke in separate interviews, Ms. Mitchell stressed that Bay Street is a not-for-profit theater, a status that she and the others believe is not always well understood in the community.

“Even in the best of times, we have to go out and raise money,” she said. Of an overall budget that has reached as high as $3.2 million in the past and has been pared more recently to roughly $2.5 million, box office sales are normally expected to cover “just under half,” she said. Indeed, she maintained, were they to sell out every offering—theater productions, movies, classes, music and more—they would still be far from their goal.

Like other local cultural institutions, Bay Street relies heavily on an annual gala, with pricey tickets to help make up the difference. (Theirs have sold for $500 for the past five years.) Unfortunately, though this year’s event on a 1960s theme was as much fun as ever, according to Ms. Fitzgerald, ticket sales were down by 15 to 20 percent.

Even more disappointing were the meager returns from the silent and live auctions, normally mega money-makers at the gala.

When the sounds of dueling bidders should have been filling the air, “this year it was very, very quiet,” said Ms. Fitzgerald. “People really weren’t bidding. It was difficult.”

Less surprising, perhaps, has been the decline in individual, corporate and government contributions. Regular donors often repeat their admiration and appreciation of the work that the theater does, said Ms. Mitchell, but they follow up with familiar stories of stock losses and financial unease and explain that they are reining in spending. Corporate sponsors also have praise for the theater, she added, but tell her that “they won’t be able to do as much as they did before.”

Referring to the confusion that he believes leads to misunderstanding in the community, Mr. Davis said that one of the main things the appeal letter is trying to convey is that “as a not-for profit, Bay Street is not a money-making business. We are here to serve the community. Our service business happens to be theater.”

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Discounting is a tried and true method of increasing sales. Most locals I know consider the present admission prices too steep. You are only appealing to the elite. While there is a substantial proportion of affluent second-homers there remains a large majority of less fortunate residents who are retired and living on meager, fixed incomes. How about a break for senior citizens?
By Whaler Harpoon (6), East Hampton on Sep 17, 09 2:10 PM
2 members liked this comment
How is the budget at 2.5 million. How much is rent, insurance,salaries,and Lipa? Seems like way too much. Volume of people is a cure of many ills in business. Once you get a reputation for being a tourist trap or just a plain rip-off,it is hard to shed. Maybe it's just live theater just i'sn't that exciting to many people anymore. Anyway what are the salaries of the five who run the place are? Do they work hard or are they just parasites of the overpriced snob appeal summer fundraisers!
By Mets fan (1501), Southampton on Sep 17, 09 2:46 PM
1 member liked this comment
This season it just didnt work out for my daughter and myself aswe only attended just one show. It is a difficult time and I hope soon, very soon the financial picture will improve. We love BayStreet; its Live Theater and comedy shows. Will se what happened next year
By pageking57 (12), Flanders on Sep 17, 09 7:31 PM
Bay Street Theatre exists to finance Sybil's retirement. All 5 of the people who run the place make well over $60,000 each for what amounts to less than 4 months or real work (yes they get paid to read plays, take naps, and generally do nothing for 8 plus months of the year) and are certainly not there to service the community considering they show things no one is interested in.

They create jobs? What? Last I heard they cut more than half their staff!!! Funny how they trimmed the "job ...more
By hamptonsgirl (1), hamptons on Sep 17, 09 8:07 PM
3 members liked this comment
I hope this Bay Street Theater closes. We locals are not into these upscale places with expensive admissions. Move on ! I would rather go to a local school play.
By nurse (53), sag harbor on Sep 18, 09 2:56 AM
Rid of Hamilton and Walton??!! Oh now that was brilliant...Julie Andrews was a main draw for the theater!
By eastendlocal (28), southampton on Sep 18, 09 7:37 AM
I can't believe the "local" philistines on here who decry the existence of cultural institutions like Bay Street just because they can't afford it themselves. Do you expect everyone to work for free? Do you think actors, writers, directors and grips should work for free as well? And have you checked out the price of Broadway show tickets lately? Bay Street is easily half the price of Broadway and provides a beautiful, intimate harborside setting. Without the Bay Street theatre Sag Harbor loses ...more
By HEJIRANYC (32), Sag Harbor on Sep 18, 09 12:38 PM
I'm all for cultural instutions, then why wasn't the place packed if it is such a bargain?Recession or no recession, the Yankees raised prices on tickets that seemed outrageous,however they lead the league in attendance.Maybe what people put values on today is changing I'm against "not-for-profit" groups and clubs that are non profit after they pay themselves pig salaries for little work. If you want to have a self serving group or club don't have it bankrolled by private donations and pigfest galas. ...more
By Mets fan (1501), Southampton on Sep 18, 09 7:00 PM
1 member liked this comment
I find the comments from "hamptonsgirl" quite interesting since they appear to come from someone with specific inside information. That being the case, "hamptonsgirl", how about telling all of us outsiders how much less the prior Executive Director was being paid; how much less the budget was under apparently much tighter control, and exactly how it is that Bay Street puts on the number of shows that it does while eveyone is asleep for most of the year. You have this information, right? Perhaps ...more
By 2BFair (1), southampton on Sep 20, 09 9:02 PM
1 member liked this comment
I am shocked by the ignorance revealed in these posts. Bay Street Theatre is an extraordinary resource for the East End. Job generation refers to those in the reaturants and retail establishments AROUND the theater that benefit from traffic TO the theater. This is exactly the scenario Save Sag Harbor is advocating. Where is their voice in all this?
By culturaladvocate (4), Brookhaven on Sep 21, 09 5:03 PM
2 members liked this comment