Eileen J. Wilson, Co-Founder of the Vineyard Playhouse and long-time Island resident, died on May 24. She was 81 years old.
Eileen spent a lifetime involved in theater, where she excelled in acting, directing, designing, writing, producing, developing, and managing companies. She was born and raised in England, but spent most of her adult family life in the U.S., living in Texas, Connecticut, and in West Tisbury.
Eileen grew up in the North of England, in Gosforth, a suburb of Newcastle, as the youngest of three children. Her school years were marked by World War II, in which her brother served and her father was a member of the Home Guard. Eileen was “Head Girl” at her public School in Gosforth, given the honor for being so talented in so many areas, including academics, arts, and athletics. She attended Durham University, where she received a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in economics at her father’s urging, despite her extremely strong creative bent. She then made her first trip to the U.S., working as an au pair in Virginia and Texas, then returned to England and worked for several years for the BBC in London.
From her teen years on, Eileen started to be involved in “Little Theater,” or community-based theater, and met her husband, Robin, while doing amateur theatricals in London. Robin and Eileen were married in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1958, where they both participated in local theater, and immigrated to U.S. in 1963 to live in Westport, Conn., with their three young children.
In Westport, Eileen became involved in the community theater and had multiple roles. The theater group at that time had no permanent home, and Eileen was instrumental in convincing the town to convert part of a closed Elementary School into a community Arts Center. With her friend Ed Spires and the collaboration of the Westport Arts Council, they designed a flexible use space that included a 150-seat black box theater that could be converted into a gallery space for visual arts. The theater space has been in continuous use since its design in 1978.
On Martha’s Vineyard, in partnership with Isabella Blake, Eileen bought and converted the former Masonic Lodge on Church Street into the Vineyard Playhouse. She designed the upstairs space as a black box theater with flexible staging options and the downstairs as a gallery/reception area. Eileen was artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse from 1982 to 1994, successfully producing a professional season of five plays in the summer, and assisting with introducing Shakespeare to the Tisbury Amphitheater. The theater has been in use by the community since her efforts to convert the lodge and create this resource for the Island. Many young actors and theater professionals got their start at the Vineyard Playhouse under Eileen’s mentorship and guidance.
Eileen additionally contributed to the community by developing, with her friends Mary Joy Stewart-Bergstrom and Lee Fierro, a permanent collection of plays at the Vineyard Haven library in honor of Lillian Hellman. Eileen and her friends were inspired to create this, noting the lack of a local memorial for Ms. Hellman, one of the greatest American playwrights, who lived on the Island.
In addition to her community work, Eileen was assistant director for the off-Broadway premiere of David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater.” She wrote three plays — two mysteries, “Dead on Cue” and “The Color of Murder,” and one drama, “‘Til the Boys Come Home,” based upon her family history in Scotland during World War I. She also wrote a children’s musical, “Christmas for Jenny,” and one musical, “She’s Our Man,” based upon the life of Victoria Woodhull. All of her plays and musicals have been produced either professionally or in university theater. Additionally she authored a book, “The Dogs of Summer,” about canines in her West Tisbury neighborhood. She was a member of Actors’ Equity Association, Screen Actors’ Guild, and the Dramatists Guild.
Eileen is survived by many loving friends and associates; her brother and sister, Gordon and Margret, both still living in England, and her three children: Toby, Sarah, and Adam Wilson and his wife, Lynn, and two grandchildren, Aaron and Eva. A memorial celebration of her life is being planned for September 25 at the Vineyard Playhouse.