The lights went down after the youth cast of “Seussical” took their bows Sunday, Aug. 5, marking the end of the North Fork Community Theatre’s 60th season. A week later, to celebrate, the theater’s board president Mary Kalich grasped a sledgehammer, took a deep breath, and swung at the stage.
As she took the first swing, several board members joined Ms. Kalich with their own hammers.
As the groundbreaking began, a group of the theater’s supporters — performers, board members and donors — were gathered to say goodbye. For now.
When the building reopens in 2019, actors and audiences will be met with an upgraded theater which still has lots of charm.
“We really want to make this a premier theatrical destination and in order to do that, we need to have the right facilities,” Ms. Kalich said on a recent walkthrough of the church-turned-theater.
Anyone who’s seen a show at the theater can probably attest: sound is a major issue, especially when a musical uses a live pit orchestra. Currently, the pit is set up on the house floor, and despite efforts to contain the sound, it bounces around with uneven distribution.
“It’s really loud,” Ms. Kalich said. “You can’t hear the actors.”
The pit orchestra will find a more suitable home beneath the stage, which will be dug out to create a true ‘pit.’
Ms. Kalich is co-chairing the renovation committee with Mike Hipp of Westhampton. Mr. Hipp, who got his NFCT start in the 1992 youth production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” now works in the estimating department at Riverhead Building Supply. “With such an old building, there were concerns” about structural integrity, he said.
The orchestra pit will eliminate the first row of seats, but the seating chart will be reconfigured to eliminate a center aisle, bringing cramped corner seats into the center.
Both wings will be extended out, and Ms. Kalich noted that the backstage areas will all be leveled out, resulting in more space. Currently, the poorly lit areas are made up of a series of narrow staircases and confusing entrance and exit points, sometimes requiring performers to exit the building to get from one side of the stage to the other.
New rehearsal space is also planned for the theater’s basement, along with new lighting and rigging technology and a new HVAC system.
Working with a theater architect to develop the plans and sound design, local architect Rob Stromski will be undertaking the $950,000 project, funded almost entirely by community donations.
The interior upgrades build on earlier fundraising efforts that helped them purchase the theater and complete some exterior upgrades.
The building was purchased from the Mattituck Presbyterian Church in 2012 after a 20-year lease expired. The NFCT had been performing in the building for more than 50 years.
“They asked us to purchase or leave and all of a sudden we had to raise $500,000 to buy the building,” Ms. Kalich recalled. They raised $500,000 to purchase the building outright. “Since then, it’s been really clear that people care about this space.”
The troupe became homeowners and the to-do list grew.
First came exterior upgrades, including installing an outdoor covered patio and box office window that Ms. Kalich said has cut down on wait times to purchase tickets.
As crews adorned the building with a fresh coat of paint, they discovered a hidden stained-glass window behind the marquee on the north side of the theater.
The glass has since been restored and a new free-standing sign was put up on the lawn.
Keeping the theater’s charm intact was key for the board of directors, many of whom have been performing there since they were kids. “The point of this renovation is to do core infrastructure stuff, so we’re starting from the ground up,” Ms. Kalich said.
Though the theater will remain closed for the rest of the year, there are plans to put up a fall show and annual variety show at to-be-determined locations. Theater officials are hoping to reopen next spring with a production of “The Producers.”
A fresh coat of interior paint and replacing the 166 seats, Ms. Kalich said, will come after the bare-bones work is completed. “The pretty, shiny stuff we can do afterwards. It’ll look and sound different because we want to improve the way you see, hear and experience live theater.”
Ahead of Sunday’s groundbreaking ceremony, Mr. Hipp reflected on what the NFCT means to him. “It’s where I met my wife 26 years ago,” he said. May’s production of “Oliver!” marked the first time Mr. Hipp was joined by his wife, Kimet Speed, and their two sons on stage for a show.
He admitted to being a bit nervous about tearing the place apart. “You become attached to the place, the people, the experience,” Mr. Hipp said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that [the theater] has been here for 60 years. There’s something special about it.”
Photo caption: Mary Kalich, president of the North Fork Community Theatre, took the first swing at the stage during a groundbreaking ceremony Sunday. She is co-chairing the renovation project with Mike Hipp, right. (Credit: Tara Smith)