Theatre : ITW: Going strong at 40
Kaf Warman, associate artistic director of the Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), begins, "For any nonprofit theatre company to last 40 years. . . " Then she laughs and says, ". . . now that's a real accomplishment."
One reason ITW has persevered is its determination to provide the broadest Island audience with live performances at a reasonable ticket price. Just as important is its goal is to put Islanders on stage and behind the scenes, giving them myriad opportunities to explore all aspects of theatre arts.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, beginning this Friday,
August 1, ITW will present "Fabulous at 40," a review of drama, comedy and music from past productions, including "Into the Woods," "Closer Than Ever," "Ruthless," "The Last Five Years," "Cannibal," "Once Upon a Mattress," and "The Mikado." The show will be performed by some of the Island's favorite local actors, many of whom originated the roles.
ITW began in 1968 when the late Mary Payne founded Children's Theatre, a summer camp offering acting, music, dance, and theater games that culminated in the presentation of an original show. Ms. Payne branched out to produce plays year round with local actors. After six years, Lee Fierro joined the team, bringing her experience in theater, live television, and a Pennsylvania repertory company.
In addition to their original plays, Ms. Payne and Ms. Fierro staged drama, comedy, and musical works from Shakespeare to Ionesco, Gilbert and Sullivan to Gian Carlo Menotti. They inaugurated New Directors Studio to develop nascent directors and, when alumni of Children's Theatre clamored for an after-school program in the winter months, Ms. Fierro founded Apprentice Players.
Theater professional Kaf Warman joined ITW in 1987 and began offering workshops and actors' residency retreats, while directing six adult productions a year, increasing the ITW's programs. Ms. Warman, on the theater faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., returns every summer to direct ITW plays.
Following the death of Mary Payne in 1996, Lee Fierro became artistic director, and longtime participant Linda Berg took over Children's Theatre, which performs at the Sailing Camp in Oak Bluffs.
The lack of its own "house" has contributed to ITW's survival. Without a mortgage or a building to maintain, it manages on a leaner budget. Still, the company scrambles constantly for rehearsal and presentation spaces. ITW shows have appeared in the Katharine Cornell Theatre, church basements, school cafeterias, the former Atlantic Connection, and Wintertide coffee house - even at the Lambert's Cove Inn.
ITW has adapted to circumstance, shortening the Children's Theatre format to two-week sessions to accommodate the changing vacation patterns of seasonal families.
To meet the challenge of shrinking audiences, ITW tries to appeal to the broadest range of tastes. Jonathan Ryan, a veteran of many ITW programs, exemplifies ITW's experimental approach. "If you had told me when I was an Apprentice Player at 13 or 14 that in my early 20s I would be in the New Directors Program directing 'Cannibal, the Musical,' by the creators of South Park, I would never have believed it," he said.
Ms. Warman explains that with rising expenses for rent, royalties, and every other production cost, "the challenge is to keep the budget in line without having the ticket prices go through the stratosphere so that the Island community can't afford to come."
Except when directing some summer productions, nobody at ITW takes a salary. "When you add it all up," Ms. Warman says, "we figured out that we make about $2 an hour. I guess you can call it a labor of love."
ITW differentiates itself from The Vineyard Playhouse (that employs equity actors) in having a community-based mission that is primarily educational. Regardless of their level of experience, it offers Islanders an opportunity to discover talents they might never have dreamed they possess.
"I want the audience to enjoy the play," says Ms. Fierro, "but for me, the utmost value is in letting the child or adult actors apply their own imagination and make discoveries within themselves. I've never been as interested in the product as the process."
ITW's future depends on community participation, in front of and behind the lights, and both are threatened. In her 21 years with ITW, Ms. Warman recognizes how the changes in the Island have affected the organization. She remembers a large pool of post-college actors who had day jobs and could explore their artistic interests on the side. Also pre-marriage and children, this group eagerly went out at night to support the artistic endeavors of their friends. "That community of actors and audience members can't afford to be here now," she says, "or they are working two jobs and have no time."
"What has sustained ITW for 40 years," says Ms. Fierro, "is the constant dedication of people - directors, parents, board members - to what we do. We have continued without ever thinking we would do anything but go on."
Mr. Ryan, who will return home to perform this weekend, agrees, "It is about the community doing something for fun and so others can learn and practice and come out and have a good time."
Island Theatre Workshop presents "Fabulous at 40," Thursday through Sunday, July 31-August 3, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre. $15. For more information, call 508-693-2769 or visit itwmv.org.
Chilmark resident Alice Early is a frequent contributor to The Times.