Pictured Above: At Volunteer Day at the Greenport Theater in April of 2023, as the fundraising effort began to get underway.
Back in 2019, not long after they moved to Greenport full-time, screenwriter Tony Spiridakis and his wife, Lisa Gillooly, hatched an idea to help fix up the heating system at the seasonal Greenport Theater so that it could open up for a winter filled with screenings of classic movies. Audiences packed in for such classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a film most of us have seen in the privacy of our homes, but not on the big screen.
Just about everyone who was there that night remembers the chills the felt when the audience joined together to sing “Auld Lang Syne” along with George Bailey and his family and friends.
Hit the fast forward button through a few years of pandemic-induced solitude, to a new era in celebration of the shared experience of cinema-going.
This winter the community will again get a chance to gather for classic films in the Greenport Theater for the soft opening of its new incarnation as the North Fork Arts Center, Mr. Spiridakis told a crowd that gathered to hear more about the new non-profit theater at VSOP Projects’ Very Special pop-up gallery in Greenport Oct. 5, likely Dec. 26 through Dec 28.
“We’ll decorate the lobby, have great films to celebrate the holidays together,” he said. “And we’ll talk again about all the plans we have.”
He added that “the work that we have to do on the building, which is considerable, has been pushed” into the new year because the closing date to take ownership of the theater keeps being pushed back.
Mr. Spiridakis told the crowd of founding donors that he expects the NFAC to close on the transfer of the deed for the property from the theater’s longtime owner, Josh Sapan, “around the end of October”within weeks.” After putting the theater on the market in January of this year, Mr. Sapan threw down a challenge to the community — form a non-profit and raise $1 million for operating expenses for the theater, and he would give it to them.
And the community came through with gusto. More than 600 donors pledged to support the NFAC, raising most of the funding in the few short months after they put out a call for donation pledges last winter.
“Community events like this will be the backbone of NFAC. We live in a world where you can download any movie at any time with a touch of a button on a phone. There’s still something magical about experiencing art together,” said NFAC’s Creative Director Shannon Goldman, as the crowd mingled amidst the vivid exhibition “Rainbow Country” in the Very Special gallery.
Mr. Goldman had been at the theater for the first winter’s screenings, where he remembers “friends and neighbors laughing in unison, crying in unison and singing in unison. It was a transformative, magical experience. That is the essence of what we are trying to build at NFAC.”
“That communal experience is kind of the dream, and also the educational component,” added Mr. Spiridakis, now the NFAC’s Executive Director. “The idea of just being in the business of saving movie theaters is not a smart thing. I’m weird, but I’m not stupid… We’re gonna bring the Brooklyn Ballet to Greenport. You have no idea how happy that makes me. That’s what an arts center should do, and if we do three-week residencies with the Brooklyn Ballet, where they’re going to choreograph their season and we’re going to watch and maybe do workshops with our local community, it’s a game changer. It’s what we need out here.”
Mr. Spiridakis had launched the Manhattan Film Institute in Greenport in 2012, bringing actors and directors together to make original short films in and around the village. That program’s educational mission forms the bedrock of the year-round programming for the new arts center, which will show first-run movies in the summer and will serve as an incubator for young performing artists year-round, with programs in development including the partnership with the Brooklyn Ballet, and a “clubhouse” where theater students from local schools can hatch new creative projects.
Lynn Parkerson, the Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Ballet, told the crowd at the Very Special event that the ballet has a program that brings the professional company into public schools to do hands-on classes with the students.
“We’ve been talking about doing a version of that for the North Fork, and how we can bring the kids together around dance,” she said.
The smallest theater in the four-screen building is a 50-seat screening room at the back of the first floor, which is accessible through an alley alongside the theater. Mr. Spiridakis said he hopes the room will become “a flex space where we can teach kids and have readings, and move stages and have a play and do a scene…. We’re going to turn it into an incredible learning center, a black box space… a creative clubhouse where we could bring all those high schools together in one space to study acting, writing, cinematography, editing, photography.”
Those programs would be free for schools and students on the North Fork.
In the summer, in addition to first-run movies in the evening and when it is raining, the NFAC will hold an animation camp, drawing on inspiration from the work of NFAC board member Paul Henry, who had run the East End Student Film Project in Greenport more than a decade ago.
Mr. Spiridakis added that Eugene Hernandez, the former director of the New York Film Festival and a Shelter Island resident, has just been named the director of the Sundance Film Festival, and he has pledged to let the North Fork Arts Center screen Sundance’s annual shorts program.
He added that comedian Colin Quinn, a consultant on the new film “Ezra,” which Mr. Spiridakis wrote, has also agreed to perform at the NFAC, and the upstairs theater stage will be upgraded as an ideal space for live music.
In the near term, as work to renovate the theater gets underway, plans are afoot for a special Valentine’s Day program.
The Arts Center also plans to hold visioning sessions for the community to give input on how they’d like to see programming involve, similar to the “Vision for Greenport” sessions held by Greenport Village in the theater this past summer. They also launched an online survey this week.
While the NFAC has raised enough funding to take ownership of the theater, anyone who donates through Dec. 31 of this year will be honored as a Founding Donor in an honorary area of the building. Donations are being accepted online at northfork-artscenter.org or by mailing a check to North Fork Arts Center, P.O. Box 263, Greenport, NY. 11944.
“Tell everybody you know that they can still become an NFAC founder,” said Mr. Spiridakis.
“We couldn’t have come as far as we’ve come, as quickly as we’ve come, without the sort of mind-blowing response from the North Fork,” said Mr. Goldman.