Ask the average Vineyarder where the Vineyard Arts Project compound is, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. And this despite the fact that the organization’s headquarters is in one of most heavily trafficked areas on the Island – just a stone’s throw from the Edgartown Stop and Shop, right on upper Main Street.
But, although it’s tucked away from the bustle of summer traffic and not on the radar – yet – of the general population, the Vineyard Arts Project is a busy percolator for some of the most exciting new work that is currently emerging in the national theater and dance scenes.
Founded in 2008, it is a performing arts residency campus that fosters the development of new work. Originally built as a dance school, the spacious complex includes two homes with 23 bedrooms between them and four studios – all fitted out with pianos, state-of-the-art sound systems, and sprung hardwood floors.
At the end of each of the summer residencies, the public is invited to attend a performance of the new work on a pay-what-you-will basis.
Founder and artistic director Ashley Melone hosts about seven residencies each year for playwrights, actors, directors, dancers, and choreographers. Among the list of illustrious organizations whose work the Vineyard Arts Project has helped foster are the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Work created during the Arts Project dance residencies has gone on to grace the stages of the New York City Center, the Joyce Theater in New York, and London’s Sadler’s Wells.
The compound was built in 2004 by Ms. Melone’s parents to serve as a ballet school and summer training program. For four years the school brought to the Vineyard a select group of teenage dancers from all over the country to train with Ethan Steifel, a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, and guest artists.
When the school closed, Ms. Melone, a dancer by training, was offered the opportunity to use the space, on the condition that she fundraise for her chosen project. With her sister Brittany, they launched the Vineyard Arts Project in the summer of 2008. The first artist-in-residence was Benjamin Millepied, who would later earn worldwide recognition as the choreographer and co-star of the film “Black Swan” (Ms. Melone served as ballet coordinator for that film).
Among those who have completed residencies since then are some of the preeminent choreographers working today.
In 2008, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright James Lapine brought the cast and crew of his play “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” to the Vineyard Arts Project. The actors lived and rehearsed there during the run of the play at The Vineyard Playhouse. That marked the beginnings of theater at the compound.
“I knew that I wanted to do new work,” said Ms. Melone. “Initially I thought it would be all the performing arts, but I don’t have a background in music.” In 2010 Ms Melone joined forces with Brooke Ditchfield of ArtFarm Enterprises and launched a residency called New Writers/New Plays. For three years now, the women have hosted the writers of three new plays a year. For this residency, the Vineyard Arts Project compensates the writers, directors, and actors, as well as providing them with room and board.
This summer is proving to be a very exciting one. In July, James Lapine, whom Ms. Melone notes has been very supportive of her endeavor, presented the first public readings of a new work he completed while here. In August the Dance Theater of Harlem will be in residence. The acclaimed four-decades-old dance institution has just been relaunched after an eight-year hiatus.
Ms. Melone spends the off-season in New York, where she is currently working towards an MFA in theater at Columbia. The Vineyard Arts Project is the realization of a dream for her – nurturing new artists and fostering new work. “Everything we do is a work in progress,” she says. “It’s really important for me to give the artists the time and space to do what they do. We really pride ourselves on keeping a model that emphasizes flexibility and creativity.”
For more information and a full schedule, visit vineyardartsproject.org or call 508-413-2104.