Building a Theatrical Mosaic

The Bay Street Theatre’s new artistic director has a very different vision
Scott Schwartz, left, envisions a more inclusive Bay Street Theatre as he prepares to take over as artistic director next month. He is shown with Josh Bergasse, a choreographer, at a rehearsal for a new musical, “Secondhand Lions,” at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. Jeff Carpenter

   In an era when Broadway productions cost tens of millions of dollars, money spent on pyrotechnics and special effects in an effort to make the live theater experience more cinematic, the Bay Street Theatre’s new artistic director has a very different vision.
    Essentially, Scott Schwartz asks a simple question: What does live theater offer that other entertainment mediums can’t?
    “The purpose of theater is to bring people together for a shared, individual experience,” he said last Thursday. “Every night you go to the theater, because it is live. Every night, it’s different. Nobody experiences the same show, night to night.”
    “You can’t experience it in your media room. You can’t experience it over the Internet, or going to the movies.”
    The live, moment-to-moment experience of each member of the audience is what is important to Mr. Schwartz — to challenge and engage the audience. “And, sometimes, to laugh at something, to be joyous.”
    Theater was part of his life growing up. His father is Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist of seminal shows like “Godspell” and “Pippin.” His mother was an actress. “My mother retired to raise my sister and me when we were born.”
    He knew theater was his life very early, in a kindergarten class play. “ ‘Ferdinand the Bull.’ I was young Ferdinand,” he said, laughing. He spoke of the importance of bringing theater into the schools, into the community, to let children experience the joy of theater firsthand, as he had.
    His high school years were important for his artistic growth. “I went to a small private school, Worcester School in Providence.” Ruth Leibowitz was the drama teacher there, and she let him direct shows.
    His growth continued at Harvard University, with its vibrant theater scene. “They do 40 shows a semester. I directed seven shows at Harvard, two shows on the main stage.” He also studied psychology and English, but once he graduated, he was off to New York, arriving in 1995 and getting to work right away, directing readings and plays. He garnered Drama Desk nominations as best director of a musical in 2001 and 2002 for the Off Broadway debuts of “Bat Boy: The Musical” and the late Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick . . . Boom!”
    In 2003 Mr. Schwartz directed Tovah Feldshuh in “Golda’s Balcony,” by William Gibson, at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater. One of the hottest tickets in New York, the production sold out for its entire 16-week run. It was then moved to the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway, where it ran for 16 previews and 493 performances, making it the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history.
    His regional theater credits read like a who’s who of the top theaters in the country: Alley Theater, Alliance Theater, Goodspeed Opera House — the list goes on and on.
    One of those venues, though, has a special significance for Mr. Schwartz. “We were working at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival six years ago,” he said about his wife of two years, Julia Motyka. Though they were working on two different productions at the festival, they found each other, and the rest is history.
    Children? “Not right now,” he said.
    Being a director in high demand takes its toll. “I spend so much time on the road, I feel like I live in a suitcase,” he said. Perhaps that is why Mr. Schwartz’s next marriage, to the Bay Street Theatre, makes so much sense.
    He has a deep love of New York City, and, at the same time, the East End. “Having a home outside the city is something I look forward to.”
    When he was a child his parents had a time share at Gurney’s Inn, and once a year they would stay in Montauk. Those stays left him with cherished memories.
    Bay Street, though, has to wait until early October. Mr. Schwartz is currently directing “Secondhand Lions,” a new musical based on the 2003 movie of the same name, at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle.
    Mr. Schwartz plans to hit the ground running here. “We have to get our season together for next summer.” His vision for a prototypical season at Bay Street involves “one great classic from the theatrical canon, plus one new work and one musical.”
    The exploration of the classics has a caveat: “I want to present things that the audience hasn’t had access to.” If it is a Tennessee Williams or a Eugene O’Neill play, for example, it will be one that hasn’t received a major recent New York or East End revival.
    “Certain issues and themes that run through the season,” Mr. Schwartz said, will act as connective tissue through the shows.
    Mr. Schwartz would like to draw in more of a mosaic of the year-round residents of Sag Harbor and the East End. He spoke excitedly about the prospect of building a Latino base as part of Bay Street’s audience.
    One author he thinks might be perfect is Caridad Svich, who has a multicultural background. “Of course, I haven’t spoken to her about it,” he said, laughing. His thoughts right now are of the first-bloom variety.
    “I want to bring different segments of the Hamptons together.” He wants to expand the New Works program as well. He sees it as an essential part of Bay Street’s future.
    “I believe in an artist-driven theater,” he said. “Bringing in wonderful actors and directors and writers.” The artists themselves, he believes, will determine the direction the productions take.
    “Bay Street has this amazing theater space,” he said. “Beautiful and intimate.” He said he believes in “immersive theater. Bring the audience onto the stage” or the show into the audience.
    As an artistic director, he is mindful of the dichotomy between the need for commercial success and the need for creative and new artistic expression.
    “I am interested in theater that is entertaining and draws audiences in. I am also interested in theater that people will talk about afterwards. That people will debate. It is striking a balance. If you present great and exciting productions, people will hear about them.”