The Vineyard Playhouse brightens up

The 178-year-old Vineyard Playhouse building, currently being renovated, was originally a Methodist meetinghouse. — Photo courtesy of MJ Bruder Munafo

Just in time for its 2011 season, the Vineyard Playhouse is ready to strut its stuff: new windows, clapboard siding, vertical trim, fresh paint on three sides of the building, and sprinkler system improvements, all accomplished as a result of the capital campaign launched last summer. Improvements didn’t include the back side of the Playhouse, which will undergo more major alterations in the next phase of renovations.

Artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo, while delighted with the results, is eagerly anticipating the summer and its potential for new donations. Last season, Ms. Munafo and capital campaign director Jessica L. Andrews set an ambitious fundraising target of $5 million. Armed with funds from the Tisbury Community Preservation Act, renovations began this past winter, with the results dramatically transforming the exterior of the historic downtown Vineyard Haven building.

“We’re hoping to get support from the community to create a state-of-the-art facility,” Ms. Munafo says. “Once renovations are complete we hope the building will be good for another couple of hundred years.”

Located at 24 Church Street, just a short stroll from Main Street, the Playhouse building was constructed in 1833 as a meetinghouse. The only year-round professional theater on the Island, it offers a wide range 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 venue for Shakespeare productions. Its reputation for excellent theater has enabled it to attract top tier talent including the late Spalding Gray, Dianne Wiest, Tony Shalhoub, Joel Grey, Mia Farrow, and Jules Feiffer.

But 178 years of steady use can be tough on a building. According to Gerry Yukevich, president of the Playhouse board of directors and a longtime supporter of the nonprofit theater, extensive renovations are critical. “We are a busy, working theater and we need a strong, beautiful house, not a funky, rickety, if charming, structure that desperately needs a major fix,” he says. “We’ll preserve the intimate setting we now have but improve the comfort and interior beauty of the building.”

Ms. Munafo projects that it will take an additional $1 million to cover the cost of planned remodeling. Blueprints have been drawn up to address the physical and spatial condition of the building. New funds will go toward a major addition on the back, a terrace on the side, the reversal of stage and seating for easier accessibility, new dressing rooms upstairs, fire exit stairs, new seating, relocation of the box office, and the creation of new office space.

Beyond the building improvements, Ms. Munafo hopes to raise an additional $4 million for a permanent cash reserve as well as the purchase of staff and actor housing and a storage facility. “We’re bursting at the seams,” she explains. “And we have people, equipment and costumes scattered all over the place. We need the physical place to support the work of what goes on in the theater itself.”

Ms. Munafo, Ms. Andrews, and the Playhouse board plan to approach potential donors for single gifts. “We’d like people to make large single gifts so that we don’t have to go back to them down the road for more support,” says Ms. Munafo. “A larger gift will last for the life of the campaign.” Meeting its goal of $5 million will enable the Playhouse to create an ongoing stable financial position, a status that has never been achieved since the theater’s inception in 1982.

The campaign has yielded one donation of $50,000, the largest gift to date; the donor, unnamed at present, is, according to Ms. Munafo, hoping that others will follow suit and has pledged to donate additional funds if others invest as well. A private foundation, also unnamed, has pledged $60,000 over a three-year period. “Gifts can always be pledged over time,” Ms. Munafo says.

As for the upcoming season, Ms. Andrews is optimistic. “I believe people will be delighted when they see what’s occurred over the winter with the building and will want to support the overall plan for the renovation of the historic Playhouse. Although we have a long way to go to meet the goal, I’m very optimistic that it is an attainable one. There are a lot of people who care about the Playhouse and its future.”

Ms. Munafo admits that she sees the campaign as two-pronged: to support the Playhouse operation and to preserve the architecturally significant structure itself. She envisions the future of the building, not just the theater, she insists.

Vendors who have been involved in the renovation obviously share her view. E.C. Cottle Inc. Building Materials of West Tisbury, Main Street Millwork, Jim Glavin, president of DECA Construction, and carpenters Clem Levin, Andrew Meyers, and Matt Mara all, according to Ms. Munafo, were generous in the time and materials they applied to the renovations. She also commends the years of unpaid efforts her husband, Paul Munafo, has donated to the cause.

“The Playhouse is part of a legacy,” she concludes. “The Vineyard is lucky to have it and I’m lucky to be here. It’s always been hard to keep this little nonprofit theater going but there are enough people who appreciate its historical significance and have the means to help preserve it.”

Plans for summer fundraising events are presently in the works. Visit or call 508-693-6450 ext. 13 for more information.

Karla Araujo, a frequent contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Washington D.C