Behind the curtain: the Vineyard Playhouse
Each winter, a drama of its own unfolds behind the scenes at the Vineyard Playhouse, the Island's only year-round professional theater. MJ Bruder Munafo, producer and artistic director, and artistic associates Joann Green Breuer and Jon Lipsky, spend weeks poring over scripts and debating the merits of the many plays they review for possible inclusion in the summer season.
While they admit that they often disagree and that the process, in Ms. Breuer's words, appears to be "totally chaotic," even as it always "falls into place," this expert panel has been largely responsible for the eclectic range of plays that theater buffs have enjoyed for the past 14 years.
Classic or new, comedy or drama, the choices are many. And although there is no set formula for constructing each summer's season of four major productions for the Vineyard Playhouse's 120-seat stage, there are key ingredients that Ms. Munafo cites as essential: "A production well done, a cast that clicks, a dynamic director, and a good story."
The search for material is continuous, with the winter months providing an opportunity for Ms. Munafo, Ms. Breuer, and Mr. Lipsky to read and share their thoughts. "We see plays and network," Ms. Munafo explains. "We share a list and look for a meeting of the minds. We're all opinionated, but I think we balance each other out. They have illustrious theater careers, but they'll be the first to say that I don't always listen to them."
Both Mr. Lipsky and Ms. Breuer agree that while they are honored to participate in the process, the ultimate decision on what will be staged is Ms. Munafo's.
"I get to be a kibitzer," Mr. Lipsky explains, "a sounding board. It's my most helpful role."
Regardless of how the three arbiters feel about individual works, they are unanimous in their esteem for Vineyard audiences. "We have families, summer people, year-rounders, the Hollywood set and theater luminaries," according to Ms. Munafo. "The population is quite something."
Ms. Breuer cites the summer audience's variety of experience and geographic diversity, a combination she characterizes as "thrilling." Mr. Lipsky concurs, describing Playhouse patrons as "sophisticated and very interested in seeing entertaining, contemporary and provocative works."
Ms. Munafo has been at the helm of the Playhouse since 1995, but she was active in the theater for 10 years prior to being named artistic director. She acted in the Playhouse's production of "Bus Stop" in 1984, deciding not long after that she was more comfortable producing and directing. She returned to school to study theater at the Harvard Extension School in the 1990s and now oversees the Playhouse's busy year-round schedule of productions for adults and children.
Ms. Breuer's distinguished career includes founding and serving as artistic director of the Cambridge Ensemble, teaching at Harvard University, and serving as a directing fellow at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. She has also helped evaluate theaters across the country for the National Endowment for the Arts.
A Boston-based playwright and director, Mr. Lipsky also teaches acting and playwriting as a professor of theater at Boston University. He moved to the Vineyard 14 years ago seeking, he says, a community with a committed professional theater that truly serves its people. "I bring mainly enthusiastic support -enthusiasm for the Playhouse, which I love."
As for the process of choosing new works, Mr. Lipsky explains that it's "a balancing act trying to serve the interests of different parts of an audience, so we serve everybody."
Although Ms. Munafo reluctantly acknowledges the impossibility of pleasing everyone all the time, she confesses that she strives to. It is with this lofty goal in mind that she divulges her framework for each critical summer season: at least one brand-new play, usually reflecting a contemporary theme; one musical or a play with at least an element of music; a work with an African-American or international theme; and, ideally, at least one play by a female playwright. This season, she intimates, audiences will be treated to a new play by what she calls a hot new playwright.
Saddled with a deteriorating physical plant (the Playhouse is housed in a former Methodist meeting house built in 1833) a limited budget, and a relatively small venue, the theater faces great challenges in tough economic times. While she'd love to equal the success she experienced when the theater staged "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 2002, Ms. Munafo says she is committed to "taking chances, keeping the door open to new people and opportunities, doing the unconventional."
Her goal for the future? "To do exactly what we do but better - to create small, compelling, intimate theater. Anything," she concludes, "is possible at the Playhouse."
Karla Araujo is a frequent contributor to The Times.