Michael Benton Disher has been the heartbeat of producing and teaching east end theater for practically forty years. In a discussion with hamptons.com he was frank and direct about his feeling about the future of east end live theater. He believes that “integrity and excellence,” are the keys to successful live theater. He explained, “We somehow need to find a way to put some money behind purity of intention and not just be focused on the bottom line.”
Mr. Disher believes the east end is losing its sense of community. He believes both Mattituck’s North Fork Community Theater and the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue Community Hall both still have old style strong community backing. About post-Covid theater he sadly said, “I think companies are struggling.”
Disher believes over the last twenty years the biggest change is the absence of community. He says, “specifically lack thereof. Being realistic quite honestly…One of the first shows I did (on the east end) was at Guild Hall for the Community Theater Company. That was back in 1983 and it was from that show that I landed my teaching job at Southampton College. Community theater was thriving then, it was popular, it was well attended, it was appreciated, and it was presented for and by the community.”
He believes what has happened has been this clash of residents versus what he calls transient. Saying it’s almost like “the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. It is very difficult to try and wrestle with that dynamic especially now post-Covid.” Mr. Disher also said, “Will theater be around in 5 years is a good question.” In his expert opinion, “The respect, the admiration for what was once a cachet associated with community theater has changed; unfortunately now I think community theater by and large has a very bad rap of being mediocre. Which is untrue.”
When it comes to most satisfying moments of his career on the east end Disher was modest and introspective when he said, “I have had wonderful successes out here and I also have had clunkers. Everyone admits to their not quite brilliant moments, but as for things I am most proud of I would say it is my first production of ‘A Chorus Line,’ in 2002. It was seemingly impossible that a group of kids at Southampton College could pull off Michael Bennett’s masterpiece with virtually no dance department and no theater department. And they did it!”
He also said, “I loved ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (at the Southampton Cultural Center in March 2018), absolutely adored it. Fought tooth and nail from doing Disney shows and then it was huge surprise, a huge success, and very profitable. I learned a very important lesson which was that no matter if it’s Disney or a ‘fluff musical,’ as a director you have a responsibility to actually tell the story. That was the first thing that attracted me to ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ the story.”
The topic then turned to plays. He said, “It’s very difficult to get audiences for plays. I think a great deal of that depends on the plays you choose. After many years, you bring a little savvy to what you do, and if someone handed a script of a brand-new play and I loved it, I would have to pass.” Why? “I can’t fill a house with it.”
Yet he also said this about plays, “Sometimes you get surprises. It can happen and it can be very successful. The most successful play when I was at SCC that was ever mounted there was ‘August: Osage County.’ That was a terrific show. Unless you have very good support from an angel with very deep pockets the likelihood of doing of new plays is not really going to happen.”
Michael Benton Disher after decades is no longer the Artistic Director of the Southampton Cultural Center. A triad of severe medical issues halted his momentum of producing shows there. One might say it took three miracles for him to beat cancer, a brain tumor, and then paralysis. Yet he has.
He believes he still has a few important projects he would like to have produced. There are financial obstacles but he is a man who seems to overcome obstacles. He is hoping somehow, someway he gets backing for a few more great productions.
He loves meeting actors and friends to reminisce about, as he put it, “theatrical stories about the wonderful times they had, but I still have more to offer.”