Pictured Above: An artist rendering of the expansion to the stage area in store for The Suffolk.
The Suffolk Theater was one of the great movie palaces of its time when it opened its doors for the first time in 1933. Since it was restored and reopened in 2013 after 25 years of falling into disrepair, it’s built a reputation as a musical venue.
But what the audience doesn’t see when they take their seats is the limitation of the theater’s small stage and lack of a backstage. The Suffolk has been making do since it reopened with a small trailer connected to the back of the building to house two dressing rooms, which has made it difficult to attract big acts.
The inner workings of The Suffolk, which is in the process of dropping the word “Theater” from its name and reincorporating as a non-profit, are going to change dramatically this year, after the theater received $2 million in Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant funding from New York State.
The Suffolk is planning to use the funding for an extension on the back of its building, which will allow it to deepen the stage by 20 feet, add a green room and six dressing rooms, artist restrooms and an office for tour management employees, along with a laundry and more storage. It will also allow for better rigging for flying LED walls and other special effects, and “shore power” and water connection for tour buses, as well as spaces that can be used for educational programs.
The five-story expansion, which was approved by the Riverhead Town Board Feb. 7, also includes apartments and retail space on the rear of the building, with nearly 3,000 square feet of retail on the first floor and 28 apartments on the floors above.
The theater’s Executive Director, Gary Hygom, and Marketing Director Meg Sexton, had just returned from the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference in New York City when they sat down for an interview with The Beacon in mid-January, and they were excited at the prospect that they will be able to bring more of the acts presented at APAP out to The Suffolk when the renovation is complete, including more family programming, circus acts, renowned jazz players, world music, dance and blues and rock ’n roll acts whose staging requirements had been too much for the theater in the past. They’re also planning to add more theatrical productions.
“This was the original plan, years ago,” said Mr. Hygom. “The stage has always been an impediment to growing the space. Many, many shows just don’t fit.”
He added that the theater may close for just one or two months during the renovation, while the back wall is being removed.
Ms. Sexton said the expansion of the stage and backstage area fit with the original vision of the theater’s owners, Diane and Bob Castaldi, whose dream was for it to be “a tried and true performing arts center.”
“Far and away, music is what we do,” said Mr. Hygom, adding that he hopes to build enough support for the programming that the theater can be open throughout the week, not just on weekends. He spent much of his career at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater, and theatrical productions are close to his heart. The Suffolk took its first foray into theater with a well-received production of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” last spring.
“We’ve found, to our surprise, that our reach is well beyond Riverhead,” said Ms. Sexton. “In an audience of 400 people, maybe five to ten of them are from Riverhead. More than half of the audience is from more than 50 miles away.”
Mr. Hygom and Ms. Sexton came to The Suffolk from the Patchogue Theater just over a year ago when that theater closed during the pandemic.
“It was terrifying,” said Mr. Hygom of the theater closures during the pandemic. “There were pockets around the country where it was very slow to come back, and we were in one of those places. We were really struggling.”
He said he’s heard that theater attendance is still down 30 to 40 percent nationwide, and “16 percent of the audience is just not coming back.”
Ms. Sexton said the theater is seeing that people are reluctant to make plans in advance, and there’s much more last-minute ticket buying. Immersive experiences are also a bigger draw.
The theater has since been been experimenting with new ways of engaging both local people and those who come from afar. They’ve been developing relationships with niche audiences for jazz and film. Riverhead Library cardholders get discounts on some shows.
And with the relaunch of the theater as a non-profit, the Suffolk Performing Arts Alliance, they will be able to introduce memberships and seek support from donors who can give the kind of support necessary to sustain the theater for the long run.
The theater, which had offered full sit-down dinners during shows when it first opened, has scaled back to just offering smaller plates, specialty cocktails and desserts, in the hopes of lending support to downtown Riverhead’s burgeoning restaurant scene. In turn, nearby restaurants have begun offering specials to theatergoers who bring in their tickets.
It’s all part of being an integral piece of the redevelopment of Riverhead envisioned when the town received a total of $10 million in downtown revitalization grant funding last year.
Directly across Main Street from The Suffolk is a swath of grass slated to become a new Town Square with help from $3.24 million of the grant funding, which gives pedestrians walking the riverfront a stunning view of the theater’s marquee.
“We’ll be the focal point of the town,” said Mr. Hygom. “We couldn’t be poised to be in a better position. The key to all of it is that it’s going to make downtown someplace where people actually walk.”
“This is such a unique space,” he added. “It’s the best venue to see a show. There’s not a bad seat in the house.”