It was love at first sight.
That’s how Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center Executive Director Clare Bisceglia describes her initial reaction to the renovated and restored United Artists movie theater when she was first introduced to it in 2002.
“I looked at the theater,” Ms. Bisceglia said, “and I thought, ‘How perfect.’ If I wanted to see somebody on a stage, what better place to see them? I don’t like cavernous, crowded spaces, especially when it comes to live performance. I like to have an intimate, connected experience.”
Settling into a cozy settee in her homey office set back from Sunset Avenue in the village, she spoke in a recent interview about the 11 years she has devoted to the “spectacularly small” theater, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, and her recent decision to step down from her post in January.
She instantly divined that the only way to leverage the PAC’s unique, up-close-and-personal character was to think big. That meant big name artists. Big-time production values. Big risks. And it would mean a huge, all-consuming effort in terms of time and energy to make it all happen. She was undeterred. “I thought,” she remembered, “‘I can do this. I want to do this.’”
What made her so sure? Beyond her background in producing television, feature films and concerts, Ms. Bisceglia said she has always felt a personal connection with the performing arts and an understanding of their impact, on both audiences and artists alike.
“Live performance literally has the ability to transform the human condition,” she said. “And that’s so important in these trying times. When patrons are leaving, they have had a shared experience and they talk to each other and their whole demeanor has changed. They’re much more open, and friendly and responsive … That’s the reason I do this.”
The special character of the concert-going experience at the PAC, Ms. Bisceglia said, helps to explain the real value of the center’s unique identity. She pointed to Eric Clapton’s recent Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan featuring 30 of the world’s greatest guitarists. “Gary Clark Jr., Keb’ Mo’, Robert Cray, Warren Haynes, Buddy Guy, they’ve all played on our stage,” offering the audience a much, more intimate experience, she said. She paused, and then a light went on: “If only I could get Eric!”
Ms. Bisceglia and her staff have devoted a lot of energy to cultivating the kind of solid reputation for the center that will keep big names coming back. The critical thing for her successor to remember, she said, is that “if you want to have world-class artists here, you have to show them the respect they deserve and treat them that way.” Creating a world-class experience for both the artists on stage and the patrons in the audience, she said, means the bar has to be set very high at the theater.
And setting the bar that high meant that Ms. Bisceglia, who lives in Quogue, needed to attract a team of influential arts devotees with the financial resources to help realize her vision. “What was remarkable,” she said, “was how the right people presented themselves at the right time.”
Ms. Bisceglia calls these individuals her “breakthrough team,” who helped her break through to the top booking agencies. The team included Brenda and Kenny Carmel, who upgraded the center’s microphones, lighting, sound system and mixing boards to meet industry standards, and Donna and Marvin Schwartz, who sponsored big name and high-risk shows.
Industry giant Jack Rovner helped snag Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, Joe Cocker, Kenny Loggins and others. “He saw what the center could be,” she said, “and he put his reputation on the line to help us.”
Members of the PAC board and her hand-picked Advisory Council were community ambassadors, stellar fundraisers and donors. Nancy DeMatteis helped grow the Arts Education Program.
Ms. Bisceglia is also grateful to members of the local business community, people like Michael Thorne at the Westhampton Country Club and Simon Jorna of The Beach Bakery. “I just love people who are willing to bet on a dream,” Ms. Bisceglia said.
The outgoing executive director believes that her commitment to the PAC and its top post has paid off. The center is now debt free and operating in the black, with a cash reserve and an endowment. Despite an explosion in programming since she took the job, programming that now fills a year-round calendar, the PAC has hired only one additional full-time staff member in 11 years.
“We’re very, very judicious about our spending,” she said with evident pride, “It should all be up on the stage.”
She is nothing but bullish about the PAC’s future, under the right leadership.
“We need to find somebody with a keen eye on the next generation,” she said, “someone with the vision that can bring in that next demographic to sustain the theater long-term.”
Ms. Bisceglia believes it is imperative that the next executive director have both nonprofit and entertainment experience. But above all, she said, he or she must believe that what they’re doing matters. “They have to look at this as a vocation,” she said, “and that’s the difference.”
By making the PAC her vocation for the past 11 years, Ms. Bisceglia believes she has met and exceeded every goal she set back in 2002. Thinking big on behalf of the PAC and realizing her vision, though, exacted a big toll on her personal life. “My passion was my job,” she said, noting that embracing that passion left next to no time for anything else in her life. So now she is ready to reclaim more balance in her life, while searching for a new opportunity to do what she does best. As she concluded, simply: “I grow things.”
Having announced her departure, Ms. Bisceglia is not ready yet to focus her attention on the time less than a year from now when she hands over the reins. She does know that the next chapter in her life will involve the performing and visual arts. The reason?
“Inspiring community among patrons is a huge gift to give to people,” she said.
And someday in the future, when she returns to the PAC as a patron, she said with a wide smile, she’s hoping she’ll find the center thriving, with its reputation intact and with engaged patrons and donors all arriving for a performance of the big “get” she never got: “Eric Clapton on the PAC stage!”
Betsy Craz of Remsenburg is an MFA candidate in the Stony Brook Southampton creative writing and literature program—Ed.