Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, whose walls reverberated with imaginative Broadway concerts, dramatic offerings and top stars along with tribute and doo-wop bands, has temporarily closed its doors and laid off staff with plans for a September reopening for a new season and re-organization.
The decision was initially thrust upon the theatre by New York State with the March 12 ban on gatherings of more than 500 people due to the coronavirus pandemic, which trounced Broadway, said PTPA board chair Ryan Murphy.
“We’re complying with the instructions of Gov. Cuomo’s executive order,” Murphy said of the first shove.
Other considerations went into the decision. “Even if we opened in summer, people would still be hesitant because of lingering fear and the economic impact,” Murphy explained. “So we said 'let’s shift programs to Sept. 1 and beyond and give people a chance to recover and be able to afford a ticket,' so that’s what we’ve done.”
Murphy assured the public that from Sept. 1 on, people can still book tickets. “We have shows like the Red Hot Chili Pipers,” he said. “They were cancelled March 17 after Gov. Cuomo’s order but we’ve scheduled them for next year.”
Eight full-time staffers and six part-timers were informed of the decision on Saturday, said Murphy. Staffers will be paid through April 10; full-time health insurance is guaranteed to May 31. “By June we may add them back on,” he said.
“A lot of our part-timers have full-time jobs and just do it for evenings and weekends so some won’t be able to file for unemployment at all because it’s supplemental, but the full timers definitely can.”
Volunteers were also contacted. And PTPA would be open to staff re-hires.
“Everyone has been told they were encouraged to apply to return,” Murphy said. “We’re in the process of reorganizing our business model and we told them as soon as we can revamp they will be invited back or they can apply. There may be new titles and shifts in responsibility from their old jobs. We wanted to make sure that when we reopen we have the right amount of money to book a shows and not spend down the money. Some of the financial assets suffered and were down in value about 25 percent coupled with settling debt that included deposits for future shows.”
Executive director Gary Hygom said, besides phone calls, staff received Notice of Termination Agreement letters via email. “Yes the staff is invited to re-apply and interview for positions,” he said. “This pandemic has been financially devastating across the planet and especially in our area.” Hygom commented staff worked hard to expand diversity and become a place in the community. “But the staff and management team on a daily basis was not involved in how to get through this together and keep the mission alive,” he said. “Might we be hired back? Maybe, maybe not. And we don’t know how many positions will be available.”
Murphy said the board did speak with Hygom often asking him to come up with potential options for staffing plans and whatever was out there. “He provided some of the SBA information, so there was dialogue,” replied Murphy. “And six or seven of the staffers we called said `I’m not happy with it but I’m not surprised you made this decision due to what’s going on.’”
“You can’t give people false promises,” added Patchogue mayor Paul Pontieri, who added the village would cover security and maintenance expenses while the building was closed. “The board won’t know how many people they’ll need to restructure. If we say we’ll furlough you and can come back, maybe the theatre will only need a couple of people. The theatre was the linchpin for Main Street coming back. And will hopefully do that again. But they can’t do that without money.”
Co-chair Mary Pontieri, who made the phone calls with Murphy, said the board wrestled with the word “terminate.” “It allows staffers to collect unemployment,” she pointed out. “Just for my own knowledge, some use furlough and it means an open door.”
As far as dance studio shows, “We’re saving for last the dance studio rehearsals and availability and also Gateway. If they’re able to, we’re prepared to have conversations as far as times.” Murphy said PTPA had been in touch with both. “(Gateway Executive Artistic Director) Paul Allan is reviewing his schedule but if he gives us the green light, it’s close enough to the Sept. 1 date anyway so it’s not out of play yet.”
Ryan said the board wrestled with the decision for a couple of weeks as each government announcement became more dire. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was their last show on March 13 and it was only for the families of cast and crew, spread out and under 500. Schools and public attendees were cancelled.
“We looked at cutting hours,” he said. “We looked at Small Business Administration disaster options,” he said. “It’s still a cash outlay upfront, and again we’d still spend down money our benefactors and community have given us while nothing is going on. It’s a tough decision.” Securing artists also means deposits upfront, even if their performance is months away.
Other variables that factored in: the theatre has 1,100 seats.
The theatre was offering a wealth of creative and educational shows and concerts under executive director Gary Hygom, said Patchogue trustee and deputy mayor Jack Krieger who is village liaison with PTPA.
“We were happy with the shows, but attendance was down and that meant less income,” he said. “We expect when all this is over, we can get the building up and running and back to success.”