BWW Interviews: A Chat With Bay Street Theatre's Scott Schwartz
Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre is bustling with excitement this season as they celebrate their 25th Anniversary. I am delighted to speak to Scott Schwartz, Bay Street's Artistic Director, about this thrilling season and all things Bay Street.
Hi, Scott! Most importantly, congratulations on celebrating Bay Street's 25th year! Let us first chat about the exciting productions! What shows does Bay Street have in store for this momentous Summer season?
Thank you! So we just completed the world premier of the new Jonathan Tolins play called The Forgotten Woman and I am very pleased to report both audiences and critics alike have really embraced the show. People seem to have really responded to the story of a woman who is on the verge of becoming an opera star, who is struggling with the men in her life, her own self image, and it seems to have really connected with audiences. You know, Jonathan is such a brilliant playwright and the whole cast and crew did a beautiful job and we're really proud of the first show. It was a big hit to start our season, so hopefully more to come.
The next show is a wonderful play that we are presenting for its 20th anniversary called The Last Night Of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry. Of course when the show played Broadway, it won the Tony for best play and it is a piece I'm so excited about. It hasn't been seen in a little while, so I am really happy that Bay Street is getting a chance to look at this anew and with a fresh eye. It is the story of a Jewish family in Atlanta in 1939 and they are very high society in Atlanta and there is a very important Jewish-German country club ball called Ballywhoo and the family is getting ready for this ball. There are two daughters in this family who are a bit at odds with one another and the big thing that happens is an Eastern European Jewish man from Brooklyn shows up and everything changes. So it is about what it means to be Jewish while surrounded by a predominately gentile society and also about class and prejudices within Jewish society because differences between german-jews and eastern-european jews were very pronounced in Jewish culture. After WW II, that went away, but I think it explores overall quests of assimilation... what does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to fit in, in America? And what does it mean to be a Jew? It's a beautiful play, it's really funny, and I'm very excited about it. I think that, particularly in the time we write now, given the political discussion we are having in this country, and given the discourse that happening in our public-sphere, to do a show about what it means to be an American, do a show about the question of cultural and religious purity verses assimilation and can you have both; I think these are very important and pertinent issues today.
And we are doing an interesting thing; in rep with that, for one week, we wanted to do something really special for our 25th anniversary season so we are offering audiences The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. It ran off-Broadway last season and it is just spectacular. It is a one man show written and performed by James Lecesne. It's a fictional story that almost seems true when you see it. It's about a small, beachside community when a 12-year-old boy disappears. It is about the search for him, it focuses on the detective who is searching for him, but also about how the community is affected by the disappearance. It's very moving; it is about serious stuff, but with this amazing tour-de-force performance. James plays 13 different characters and the story is a wonderful mystery. One of the things I responded to when I saw it was what a crackling good mystery it is.
And finally we finish up our season with a new take on the great musical My Fair Lady. Everybody knows this show, but our director, Michael Arden, is reconceiving it. He has a bold concept, reduced cast of fifteen people, the music is going to be performed on two pianos, and it's going to be this really intimate, new take on the story that really focuses on the complexity of the characters, on the depth of the relationship, and brings a sort of contemporary perspective to the show. I think it is going to be astounding and unlike any My Fair Lady you have ever seen. We have amazing singers and performers to honor the score. We have Kelli Barrett playing Eliza and I think she is one of the best singers working in New York today; she has such a beautiful voice. Howard McGillin is playing Pickering; it truly going to be a show not to be missed. What we're hoping to do for My Fair Lady is what we did for Grey Gardens last year which is to use the fact that Bay Street is such a wonderfully intimate space to get up close and personal with these complicated musicals.
What drew you to these particular shows? Timing? Story? Playwright?
I think a little of all of those. You know, what we really wanted to do with our 25th anniversary season is present the broadest range of theatre that we could for our audience. I feel we have a responsibility and a pleasure to offer audiences all kinds of different theatre and experiences. So I really wanted to do a world premier. We have done three world premieres in my first two seasons as Artistic Director. Doing new work is very important to me and doing new work is essential to who we are at Bay Street and so The Forgotten Woman being a story about a strong woman coming into herself interested me a lot given where we are in our country right now politically. I think doing a story about a woman and women's issues is a powerful thing. I also wanted to do a great classic; something that would fall into what we consider a classic piece of theatre and I think My Fair Lady is that as it has been called the perfect musical and is worthy of a new look. Again, it's about a strong woman in a relationship with a strong and complicated man, it has brilliant characters. I thought My Fair Lady was a great thing to revisit this season. And The Last Night Of Ballyhoo, in a way, is a wonderful compliment to both of them because I wanted a contemporary work by a leading playwright but a work that has been proven to be an important modern play and The Last Night Of Ballyhoo has that, the issues it raises about our culture. So it seems this season has become "the season of the woman" and I'm very proud of that.
It is truly thrilling to see how invested Bay Street is in women playwrights and giving new works the chance they deserve.
Yes, that is very important to us. You know we have the New Works Festival in the Spring and every year we purposefully have at least one woman playwright be included in the New Works Festival. It is a way we get to explore projects we're seriously considering, it is a way for the audience on the East End to connect to new works, and it is our way to support artists that we admire. And we frequently use both local performers and feature works by local writers.
As Artistic Director, what is your process for choosing the shows for a typical main stage season?
It's a little a little bit free flowing. I try to keep my eye on what is happening in the theatre scene in New York and nationally to see what people are responding to and what people are interested in, I think about shows that I like, I also reach out to artists - particularly directors, but all sorts of artists - that I admire and like and ask what they are interested in doing. I have a bulletin board in my office where I put up many different shows - new and classic - and then I kind of narrow in from there. And usually what happens is I will pick the first play - whatever that may be in whatever slot that may go - and then that starts to guide me. If the first show is about a certain subject matter, sometimes I may want to pick other plays or musicals that relate to that or start a conversation in some way with those themes. Or, sometimes we'll find a serious, classic show to compliment that. It sort of finds itself as we go, but it starts with the artist and it starts with the work. I want Bay Street to be a place where people can do their passion project. That's what we have done for the three years I have been Artistic Director; all the shows we have done someone has been very passionate about and I think that results in the most exciting work; making this a home for artists to do projects that they really want to work on.
What are some of your dream shows to produce at Bay Street?
There's always a long list of those! One show I would really like to do is a new production A Midsummer Night's Dream. I would direct myself. That's a play I've always wanted to direct and I have an idea on how to do it environmentally at Bay Street where the action is happening all around and through the audience. We may or may not do that. There are many plays I'd like to do. I've been interested in M Butterfly for a while. Some day I'd like to do a production of Carousel; to do an intimate, new production of Carousel. And there's a slate of new plays and musicals on my list. We'll defiantly be doing at least one premiere next season.
And then you also have the fabulous Bay Street Gala this Summer! What details can you tell us about that?
I think it is going to be the biggest party Bay Street has ever thrown; it is going to be amazing. Because it's our 25th anniversary, we're pulling out all the stops. We're doing a big show in the theatre to start off the night which is going to be a retrospect of the past twenty five years. We are going to honor several people who have been important to Bay Street. Some of the performers include Jason Alexander, Alec Baldwin, Rich Kind, BD Wong is going to be our emcee (he's done a couple of shows over the years). Then we have a huge dinner with an amazing auction and live entertainment. It is outdoors under a huge tent on the Wharf. And there are going to be some surprises and a special announcement of a new work that we're going to pursuing.
What are some future endeavors we can expect from Bay Street?
There is so much coming to Bay Street. We are at a very exciting time; in a period of expansion. There is so much enthusiasm about what is happening at the theatre. We are expanding our educational programs; we have year round educational programming which is growing including summer camps and master classes. I am actually teaching one of the master classes. We have done free outdoor Shakespeare in a nearby park. They have been readings, but well-staged reading. This summer, instead, we are going to be doing a free concert premier of the stage adaptation of the musical The Prince Of Egypt. This is going to be the world premier concert where the full show and full score is presented for the first time. I have been developing this for a while, so I am very excited about this. That is on August 13th and it is an amazing piece. And what better way to premiere it than outdoors in nature - since it is a story that takes place in nature - and on a wonderful summer night in Sag Harbor.