Despite the dark and cold, some 20 people filed into the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse last Tuesday evening to take part in Virginia’s Drama Club, an ongoing effort to support and enrich those with varying abilities and disabilities, their friends, family, and caregivers.
The club is the brainchild of MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director of the Playhouse, and it is an eclectic gathering. Absolutely everyone who walks through the door participates in the hour or so of interactive theater games. But these “games” are far from competitive. Theater games traditionally are warm-up exercises for actors before a rehearsal or performance, and they’re also used in developing improvisational theatre. Munafo employs them to help participants learn to work together, connect with each other, and to practice focus and performance skills. But she emphasizes what they are most is a great deal of fun.
Munafo named the club in honor of Virginia Hackney, a resident of Vineyard Haven who was very involved with the Playhouse, both helping out and appearing in some of the productions. Hackney also worked at Chilmark Chocolates. She passed away from cancer before the club began. “Virginia was an amazing human being, and I wanted to do a drama club with adults with different abilities,” Munafo said. “I have a lot of people who work at the Playhouse with disabilities and different abilities always, and in the plays, but not a formal club.”
Munafo started the club in February 2016 in close collaboration with the Vineyard Independence Partnership (VIP), a partnership of individuals with disabilities, their families, and friends working to ensure that opportunities for a full life are available to them. Grants from the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard and the Martha’s Vineyard Bank Charitable Fund have provided support for Virginia’s Drama Club.
“The club is precious to me, and I created it to provide a low-pressure, safe, and supportive environment where participants are encouraged to express themselves dramatically,” Munafo said. “The club structure allows folks to attend as often as they wish.”
Stressful it is not, that’s for sure. Munafo comes into every session with an outline of what she wants to do. “I cater to the group and the different abilities. But everybody is capable of a lot. Sometimes I get inspired by the group. I look at somebody and I digress. I’m good at working on my feet too.”
Last Tuesday we warmed up in a circle with some theater games that got our brain synapses going, and had us thinking on our feet. In one of the early rounds, Munafo had us work together with a partner, and each pair had to come up with and say six words that began with a letter she assigned, not as easy as you’d expect when you’re under pressure.
When we got to scene work, Munafo broke us up into small groups and gave a deceptively simple prompt. We had about 10 minutes to develop a scene about searching for something, and each of us had to come up with a name for our character and at least one line of dialogue. The groups’ performances were inventive, and one more hilarious than the next. One of my favorite character’s name was Professor Wigglebottom, and the group he was in was searching for a missing Mozart concerto.
Participants come for different reasons. Alexander Campbell, who was part of my scene group and named his character Elvis, said, “I come because it gets me over my shyness.” But he emphatically said he didn’t ever want to be on Broadway —“It’s too much pressure.”
Tess Howell, who has been participating for two years, also referenced her shyness as a motivating factor. She does it “to be with other people. To get over my shyness because I’ve been bullied for years. And I’ve been in a shell.” She is not without theater experience. “I went to the Riverview School, and they had some theater and I was in there, and did chorus. I blossomed a lot, but when I got here, I got shy around a lot of people, and I work as a cashier at Reliable Market and this helps me out.”
Erin Doyle says she has been with the group for about four years, and when it’s not running, she says she asks herself, “‘OK, what do I do on Tuesdays?’ I do miss it.”
Jenny Allen, literary manager at the Playhouse, comes as regularly as possible. “When I was growing up, when you had a birthday party at home you played games. I love these kinds of games!” I knew what she meant; that giddy kind of atmosphere was tangible.
Most impressive was the amount of mutual support, with folks helping others out according to their abilities to make sure everyone could fully participate. This was particularly evident when we had to practice projection by marching one by one to center stage to project our voice up to the farthest row, where Munafo was sitting. Every participant declared their name and favorite ice cream flavor. The loud clapping for one another motivated even the shyest of us to come forward.
“In every sense of the word it’s a club,” Munafo said. “It’s a lot of joy. It keeps me going. In the theater, it’s probably my favorite thing that I do.”
Virginia’s Drama Club is free and open to all adults with different abilities, and their friends and family. For more information, contact MJ Bruder Munafo at email@example.com.