The show will go on at The Vineyard Playhouse

Artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo stands in front of the small building with a large artistic heart. — File photo by Jaxon White

In 2009, a Sunday New York Times featured a story on The Vineyard Playhouse called “The Season is Summer, but the Fare is not Stock.” Writer Patrick Healy focused on how the 30-year-old Playhouse is dedicated to presenting new, thought provoking material and has managed to attract luminaries from the worlds of Broadway, film, and television to its stage.

“The Playhouse has evolved and developed a good reputation for presenting new works and working with playwrights,” said Vineyard Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo. “We’ve become a place for new plays. That’s what really excites people in the industry.”

Some of those whom The Playhouse has attracted over the years include Spalding Gray, who presented a new work (sometimes for the first time) for Playhouse audiences for 15 years up until his death in 2004; Pulitzer and Tony award winning playwright James Lapine, who has premiered two works at The Playhouse; and Jules Feiffer, who hosted productions of two of his plays there.

The Playhouse’s honorary board reads like a who’s who of summer Vineyarders – Judy Blume, Marc Brown, Olga Hirshhorn, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Doug Liman, Rose Styron, Bob Vila, and Mary Wallace, among others. The list of actors who have graced Vineyard stages includes Mia Farrow, Dianne Weist, Amy Brenneman,Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, Paul Benedict, and many of the reigning lights of Broadway.

And what attracts these stars, who might otherwise spend their time on the Vineyard relaxing and staying out of the public eye, to participate in the local theater?

Ms. Munafo likes to make the distinction between community theater offering amateur productions, and regional theater featuring professional actors and directors. The Playhouse, which she refers to as a professional, nonprofit working theater, falls into the second category. Summer productions feature equity actors – many from New York, many with films and television roles to their credit, and established directors like Drama Desk award winner Claudia Weill. However, local talent is often tapped for productions, especially during the off-season.

What sets The Playhouse apart from community theater is not just its reliance on professional talent but also the material that is selected, much of it being new plays.

“It can be risky,” Ms. Munafo said. “You don’t pack the house like you do with ‘Oklahoma.’ That’s what has gotten us our reputation in the industry. We’re known as a fearless little theater that takes risks.”

The Playhouse also hosts a yearly summer production of a Shakespeare comedy at the outdoor ampitheater on State Road in Vineyard Haven, featuring local actors and directors. This summer, they will present two – “Twelfth Night” and “Romeo and Juliet.” During the off-season, The Playhouse sponsors a series of readings by a group called Shakespeare for the Masses. The Playhouse has also long offered children’s educational programs and a summer camp.

The Vineyard Playhouse was founded in 1982 by English actress and playwright Eileen Wilson and Isabella Blake. Housed in a converted 19th century Methodist Meeting House, the theater originally produced classic plays and former Broadway hits drawing talent from among locals and summer visitors. The theater eventually attracted the attention of people like Mr. Gray and Mr. Feiffer and has been able to build on early collaborations with these theater luminaries to the point today where major actors, directors and playwrights are drawn to the Vineyard.

Over the years The Playhouse has presented such proven hits as “Proof,” “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “Death Trap,” and “M. Butterfly,” but they have also hosted premieres of more than 50 new plays, (not including works featured in a decade-long yearly short play festival).

Of The Playhouse’s premieres, a number have gone on to achieve success and garner awards at more well known venues. 2007’s “This Island Alone,” about the former deaf community in Chilmark, was picked up to tour with the National Theater of the Deaf. The play “Fly,” which was originally commissioned by Lincoln Center as a short work and then first presented as a full-length play at The Playhouse, went on to win rave reviews when it had its official premiere at the Tony Award winning Crossroads Theater in New Jersey.

“Dirty Blonde,” directed at The Vineyard Playhouse by James Lapine, went on to run on Broadway with the same cast as the Vineyard production. Jules Feiffer’s series of short plays, “Jules’ Blues,” was written especially for The Playhouse. Mr. Feiffer’s wife Jenny Allen and daughter Halley Feiffer have also had their plays produced as readings by The Playhouse, as part of the the theater’s Monday Night Special series.

The Playhouse building, which is currently undergoing major renovations, features an upstairs theater that will hold 99 people in stadium-style seating and sophisticated sound and lighting equipment (which will be further upgraded). The downstairs lobby is spacious and comfortable. The experience is unique in that guests almost always have the opportunity to mingle with the cast and crew and enjoy an intimate theater experience, even though they are enjoying urban theater quality entertainment.

Although it has historically been a black box theater (no raised stage), when the overhaul is completed sometime next year, the theater will feature a new stage named for longtime Playhouse supporter and former honorary board member Patricia Neal.

In the meantime, The Playhouse has a full season scheduled at other venues. The popular Monday Night Special series of new play readings will be held at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. A play by television producer Larry Mollin will be presented at the M.V. Regional High School Performing Arts Center in July, and a new play by two-time Tony nominee Randal Myler will be performed at The Yard, in Chilmark, in August.

“I think the perception is that we’re not having a season this year,” Ms. Munafo said. “On the contrary, there’s hardly a night all summer when there isn’t something going on with The Playhouse.”

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