ArtFarm enjoys success

Brian and Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, the brains behind ArtFarm Enterprises. — File photo by M.C. Wallo

At its inception in early 2009, ArtFarm Enterprises stated a mission: “To provide a creatively fertile environment where professional artists can grow their art, while simultaneously teaching the community how to cultivate their own.” Now, at the close of their second season, the fledgling organization is realizing this mission, as some of the seedling projects that ArtFarm nurtured this past summer have blossomed into fully realized ventures enjoying success off-Island.

ArtFarm was founded by Brooke Hardman and her husband Brian Ditchfield, who both have extensive backgrounds in theater. Basing their enterprise on the sustainable agriculture movement, their idea was to foster the performing arts by providing up-and-coming artists with opportunities to work on, and present their work on the Vineyard. They have utilized a variety of nontraditional performance spaces and partnered with a number of different organizations to bring affordable theater to Vineyard audiences. Their first summer ArtFarm produced a play written by Mr. Ditchfield and the couple were encouraged by the enthusiastic response to expand for their second season.

This past spring Mr. Ditchfield was hired as the full time managing director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, but Ms. Hardman continued with ArtFarm as a solo project, with Mr. Ditchfield acting as consultant. This past summer ArtFarm produced three events — the New Writers/New Plays Festival, a play by a student theater troupe; and two discussion-accompanied performances by Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

Although the last project involved an established theater company and a successful production, two of the three 2010 ArtFarm productions introduced new material and emerging talent. And from those two ventures have sprung the kind of opportunities that the ArtFarm founders hoped to generate.

In mid-July, seven Carnegie Mellon students who call themselves the PigPen Theater Company came to the Vineyard and wrote, scored, and produced an original play with music. “I took them straight from the boat to the field at Featherstone,” Ms. Hardman says. “Ten days later they had a script and did a performance for us. It was magical. I was so proud of it. ‘The Mountain Song’ proved wildly popular during its three-week run outdoors at Featherstone.”

The PigPen troupe went straight from the Vineyard to New York’s Fringe Festival where they performed “The Mountain Song” and another play, “A Nightmare Story,” which they completed during their stay here. They walked away with a Best of the Fest award that earned them a run at the Players Theater in New York.

Ms. Hardman’s low overhead approach aligns nicely with the PigPen company’s modus operandi. She says of the Vineyard production, which required a lot of ingenuity and very little in the way of outside resources, “It proved that you could make a lot out of a little if you have the right team and the passion for it. Everyone came out of that experience with something.”

“Witness Uganda,” one of the plays that was presented as part of ArtFarm’s New Writers/New Plays event in early July, will have its world premiere at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena, Calif., next July. While participating in the first time residency program that was co-produced by ArtFarm and Vineyard Arts Project at the Vineyard Arts Project facility in Edgartown, writer Matt Gould and director Griffin Matthews completed the second act of the musical about Mr. Matthews’ experience as a volunteer and the founder of a charitable organization in Uganda. They also wrote and recorded four of the show’s songs while here.

“It’s things like that that make me so proud and it’s exactly what we want to accomplish,” Ms. Hardman says. Another of the plays, “Disgraced,” attracted the attention of some influential members of the theater community and, as Ms. Hardman says, “They’re getting a team together and shopping it, and it looks good for it getting performed in New York or somewhere else.”

Ms. Hardman is a firm believer in collaborations and has partnered with a number of different local organizations for her productions. She comments on her partnership with Ashley Melone, founder and director of the Vineyard Arts Project: “She has become not only a brilliant partner in crime, but a great friend. We basically started our organizations at the same time. She had primarily been doing dance. She was looking to expand her programming to include theater. I called her up and went down to New York to talk about what we could do together. It went so far above and beyond what we thought it would be.”

Ms. Melone, who has now signed on as one of the producers of “Witness Uganda,” is equally enthusiastic. “We really have formed a great partnership through this festival,” Ms. Malone says. “We get along tremendously and work really well together.”

Ms. Hardman, who continues to act in the off-season, will appear as Imogen in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Cymbeline” in January and February. Her work with the Boston-based company last year — she played one of the leads in “Othello” — led her to invite them to do a scene from that production this past August. The two performances included discussions by the production’s director Judy Braha, and theater legend Robert Brustein. Like ArtFarm, The Actors’ Shakespeare Project is a theater group without a fixed venue. Their objective is to bring theater out into the community and, according to Ms. Hardman, they were enthusiastic about bringing a show outside of Boston and would love to come back next summer.

While the success stories that ArtFarm boasts are a source of pride to Ms. Hardman, she is most gratified by what she has been able to give back to the community.

“If there are artists coming here I want to know what their contribution to the community will be. That’s a big priority for me. I want it all to have a backbone of education.” The “Othello” cast did workshops with the local student’s improv group, the PigPen members worked with the Island Theatre Workshop’s children’s program and free open rehearsals were a part of the New Writers/New Plays program.

Ms. Hardman is ecstatic that ArtFarm’s second season has left them in the black. Her leap of faith has paid off — in a number of ways.

“I feel blessed to be a part of community like this. Coming here from New York and Chicago to be a part of community that’s so welcoming and supportive and where it’s okay to test out new things and not feel the incredible pressure that you feel in the city is a dream.”

As for next year, Ms. Hardman is cautiously keeping both feet firmly on the ground. “I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. I want to do what we did this summer, but do it better. I’m over the moon that we have a little coffer and I don’t want to tempt the financial gods.”

Gwyn McAllister, who lives in Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.