Southold theater group pitches use of community center

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | The Peconic School community center is set to open this spring.

A new North Fork theater group would like to be among the first users of the town’s Peconic School community center, set to open this spring.

The town purchased the former Peconic Lane elementary school for use as a community center four years ago. It has a room that once served as both cafeteria and auditorium, with a raised stage and theatrical lighting. Town board members have said the space would be ideal for use as a theater or auditorium.

Enter East End Light Theater, a nonprofit organized by Southold residents Patrice Keitt, Michael Manuelian and Gregory Welch, who have all been involved with both local community theater and professional theater in New York.At the Town Board’s work session Tuesday morning, the three pitched a plan to turn the space into a 65-seat theater.

“Our goals are to produce life-affirming, affordable theater on the North Fork,” said Ms. Keitt. The group plans to focus on modern plays, steering clear of musicals and other standard community theater fare.

“We would consider it a regional theater at a more professional level” than community theater, she said.

There is some precedent for theater in public buildings on the East End. The Hampton Theatre Company, where members of the East End Light Theater have produced shows, stages its productions in a dedicated theater space at Quogue Village Hall.
Supervisor Scott Russell said he has long envisioned that the Peconic School will be used for residents who are interested in the arts, perhaps in conjunction with the East End Arts Council.

“If you play soccer out here your needs are met. If you play violin there’s nothing for you,” he said. “Through the youth board we’ve talked about that. Those are sort of things we’re trying to provide.”

Other Town Board members voiced concern that dedicating some of the school space as a theater would limit the use of the building for the general public. The East End Light Theater would like to use the auditorium and one former classroom for its programs.

“We don’t want to make it exclusive to one group where the door’s locked,” said Councilman Al Krupski.

“This sounds wonderful, but we haven’t sat down and thought about what we’re doing there yet,” Councilwoman Louisa Evans added.

Mr. Russell said that he envisions the space also being used for public meetings, panel discussions and public debates, and that he finds the theater idea “very exciting.” He said he wants to discuss the building’s use with the town attorney before making a commitment.

He quipped that he believed Mr. Krupski might want to use the space himself for a one-man production of “Twelve Angry Men.”
“He’s very angry,” Mr. Russell said of the affable councilman.

Mr. Krupski laughed.

“I know you’ll be in the front row,” he told the supervisor.

Councilman Chris Talbot said he was wary of committing public space to the project when the town pays $65,000 per year to lease office space at the Capital One Bank branch in Southold. Mr. Russell said, however, that the Peconic community had asked that the school not be used for town offices but for community space.

Though the room could easily be set up as a traditional theater, the group’s plan to change the space to provide more of a “black box theater” feel would require ripping out an archway where the curtain hangs at the front of the stage and lowering the stage.
Councilman Vincent Orlando worried that those changes would affect the structural integrity of the building.

“Not to be a giant rain cloud, but it’s going to be $2 million to do that,” he said. “You have to use union laborers.”

“We think we could bring value to the space,” said Ms. Keitt. “We would be willing to commit from the beginning to partner with you guys, and put together a season of programming — workshops, staging shows, youth programs, senior programs. By doing that early on, you’re creating an immediate consistent use, creating a buzz factor for what’s going on over there … We all know the benefits of the North Fork. This would be just another jewel in the crown.”

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