From off-Broadway to off Main Street: The Vineyard Arts Project brings New York theater to the Island

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Cirio Collective returns to Vineyard Arts Project for the first time in 10 years. — Photo courtesy of Vineyard Arts

For the past five years, the Vineyard Arts Project (VAP) on Upper Main Street, Edgartown, has been a nurturing ground for some of the country’s most exciting new theater work. Although the facility, set back a little way off the main drag, includes a state-of-the-art dance studio/performance space and housing for up to 40 people, it has somehow maintained a low profile on the Vineyard.

But the artistic impact of the Vineyard-based artists’ residency on New York City theater is undeniable. Shows developed at the Vineyard Arts Project have gone on to Broadway and off-Broadway stages, have garnered honors, including an Obie award and a Tony nomination, and jumpstarted the careers of some of the hottest new American playwrights working today.

This summer, the VAP will host artists from two of New York City’s preeminent theater organizations, the Public Theater and Ars Nova, as well as an up-and-coming dance troupe and PigPen Theater Co., an innovative group whose unique brand of music, film, and theater has earned them critic’s picks from the New York Times and Time Out New York, among other notable publications.

Also this summer, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner James Lapine (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) will be returning to the VAP to work on a new musical, which will be presented here in a developmental workshop starring Christine Ebersole.

It’s shaping up to be yet another exciting season for the VAP, an organization that provides a unique experience for both artists in residence and Island audiences. “I think what’s so great about the Vineyard Arts Project model is that Islanders get this sort of behind-the-scenes look at works in progress,” says founder and artistic director Ashley Melone. “And people get really great access to artists who you normally wouldn’t get a chance to interact with when you go to the theater in New York.”

Among those from the Public Theater who are currently in residence and will be presenting new works are Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who collaborated on the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, and director Rachel Chavkin and composer Dave Malloy. Ms. Chavkin and Mr. Malloy, both two-time Obie awardwinners, previously worked together on the critically acclaimed Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

Also currently in residence are the members of Universes, a multidiscipline hip-hop/spoken word theater group, and Fiasco Theater Group, an ensemble known for its Shakespeare adaptations.

An evening of performances by Universes as well as the Public Theater artists and groups now in residence will kick off the VAP summer schedule this Saturday, June 27 (Ars Nova was in residence in May, but did not perform for the public). The performers will present new material in one form or another, ranging from readings to songs and more.

This is the fifth year of the VAP’s relationship with the Public Theater. “It’s very exciting to be able to host these artists,” says Ms. Melone. “I’m a longtime fan of the work of the Public. Joe Papp [the late founder of the Public Theater] is such an idol of mine. Working with Oskar Eustis [current artistic director] has been incredible for me as a young producer, to see how he works and develops shows.”

A fundraising party at the Vineyard Arts Project campus on July 3 will give guests a good taste of what the organization is all about, and will also provide an opportunity to mix and mingle with some of the visiting New York City–based artists. The fifth annual Art4Art party will include entertainment from New York’s colorful DJ team Andrew Andrew, and a silent auction featuring lots of unique N.Y.C. theater experiences. Also on hand will be VAP alums Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, who will perform songs from their musical Invisible Thread.

Formerly titled Witness Uganda, Invisible Thread, the musical will be enjoying a run at New York City’s Second Stage theater starting this November. Mr. Gould and Mr. Matthews were in residence at the VAP in 2012. During that time Ms. Melone established a relationship with the writing team, and has since signed on as producer of their show.

“It’s been an incredible journey for me,” says Ms. Melone, a former dancer, who served as ballet coordinator for the film Black Swan. “I never thought I wanted to be a commercial theater producer. I became so attached to the show, and wanted to become involved in the telling of that story.” The fact-based musical Invisible Thread follows the journey of a young man from New York to Uganda and focuses on his efforts to help teens from impoverished African families.

Ms. Melone splits her time between New York City and Martha’s Vineyard, and she has found that her two worlds have complemented each other well. “My involvement in the theater world of New York has allowed me access to a number of established theater organizations,” she says. And as a fledgling producer, she has discovered the value of residencies like the VAP. Ms. Melone said, “I think seeing things from the other side has made me realize how important that experience is. Time on the Vineyard is really protective and nurturing. When there’s not too much money involved and you’re not worried about being reviewed or who’s in the audience, it takes the pressure off.”

“The Public Theater with Party People from Universes”; Saturday, June 27, 7 pm.

Art4Art Party; Friday, July 3, 5–8 pm, featuring food from Morning Glory Farm and Pie Chicks and musical performances from Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, creators of Invisible Thread. Party tickets $35, VIP access with gift bags $60.

Cirio Collective’s Inaugural Performance; July 18, 7 pm.

Flying Over Sunset with Broadway star Christine Ebersole; August 25, 7 pm and August 27, 7 pm.

Tickets for all upcoming performances can be purchased online at TicketsMV.com.