Vineyard Playhouse plans renovations

To MJ Bruder-Munafo, the artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse, the need to rehab the theater building on Church Street in Vineyard Haven can't wait. — File photo by Jaxon White

If a proud but weary old building could hold out its hand and beseech a community for help, the Vineyard Playhouse in downtown Vineyard Haven surely would.

The roof leaks. The heating and cooling system is operating on borrowed time. The building has no insulation and is, as artistic director MJ Bruder-Munafo says, “freezing in the winter.” The traffic flow for both audience and actors is problematic, and fire safety has been sketchy. The windows are rotting and, until this season, the vertical platform that serves as an elevator has been less than reliable. And yet, the Playhouse emits a spirit and a will to survive that persists despite a physical plant that is, at best, down on its heels.

The time has come, Ms. Bruder-Munafo says with conviction in her voice, to act. “A Time to Act,” is, in fact, the theme for a major capital campaign currently being launched by the Playhouse. The goal: to raise five million dollars this season to fund renovations and an addition to the structure, as well as to create a stable financial position, including a permanent cash reserve.

Established in 1982, the Vineyard Playhouse is housed in a classic clapboard New England barn-style meetinghouse built in 1833 at 24 Church Street, just a short stroll up the hill from Main Street. The only year-round professional theater on the Island, the Playhouse offers a wide selection of plays, staged readings, workshops, an annual family holiday show, an off-season program for Island schoolchildren, a summer theater camp, and an outdoor summer amphitheater. It has earned a reputation for excellence and for risk-taking that extends far beyond the Island.

In the past 10 years alone, the Playhouse has introduced 34 new works or premieres, many of which have enjoyed long runs in theaters across the country after coming to life on the Vineyard stage first. Over the years, actors, playwrights, and performing arts luminaries — including Mia Farrow, Amy Brenneman, Jules Feiffer, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Spalding Gray, June Havoc, Van Johnson, Dianne Wiest, Tony Shalhoub, Joel Gray, and Patricia Neal — have supported the theater.

The not-for-profit performing arts organization has launched two attempts at a capital campaign in the past, according to Ms. Bruder-Munafo. While both succeeded on a smaller scale, this summer’s endeavor is spearheaded by a full-fledged director, Jessica L. Andrews. Ms. Andrews brings with her over 40 years of theater experience, including a lifetime of summers spent on the Island and a resume that includes stints in top management at the Arizona Theatre Company, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., the National Endowment for the Arts, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, and the Hartford Stage Company. Between Ms. Bruder-Munafo and Ms. Andrews there is a shared determination and sense of purpose that appears indomitable.

“We needed someone with experience in capital campaigns and knowledge of the theater inside and out,” Ms. Bruder-Munafo says. “Jessica has the clout and experience to make this happen.”

Ms. Andrews first came to the Vineyard as a child, the daughter of parents who were both committed theater professionals. She is thrilled, she says, to be back in a fundraising capacity. “It’s vital for the Island to have a strong year-round theater,” she says.

But asking for money during a lingering recession is admittedly no easy task, the duo admit. “We waited until the hospital and the YMCA had nearly completed their campaigns before we launched ours, ” Ms. Bruder-Munafo says. “We simply can’t wait any longer. The building desperately needs work now.”

Armed with grants totaling over $200,000 from the town of Vineyard Haven, the Playhouse secured MacNelly Cohen Architects of West Tisbury to begin plans for improvements. The first phase of a sprinkler system has been installed and blueprints for a new Playhouse have been drawn up.

“We’re addressing the physical and spatial condition of the building, as well as its fire safety,” says Bruce MacNelly. An architect on the Island for 30 years, he believes in a balance between preserving historic character while enhancing the health and safety of a structure.

Though the Playhouse will appear relatively unchanged from the street, the new theater will include a major addition on the back as well as a terrace on the side. The stage and seating will be reversed to allow for easier accessibility by both actors and audience. The dressing rooms will be moved upstairs, fire exit stairs will be added, new seating installed, the box office relocated, and office space created. If the financial goal is met, Ms. Bruder hopes to purchase housing for actors and to build a scene shop and rehearsal hall as well.

The historic building is, according to Mr. MacNelly, important to both the tradition and the future of Vineyard Haven. “It’s both a public institution and a handsome example of Yankee architecture. It also plays a key role as an extension of Main Street life and culture.”

Ms. Bruder-Munafo, Ms. Andrews, and Board of Directors president Gerry Jukevich have identified potential major donors and plan to use a one-on-one approach to enlist their support. “We’re hoping to start with a major gift to encourage others to get on board,” Ms. Bruder-Munafo says. “If all goes well, we’d love to start renovations this winter. If we achieve our goals, the Playhouse will be here to inspire Islanders for the next 200 years.”

The Playhouse’s annual fundraising event is scheduled for this Sunday, Aug. 1, at the historic Chilmark home of film director Doug Limon.

To make a donation, or to find out more about the capital campaign, contact Jessica L. Andrews at 508-696-6300, ext. 15 or by email: