Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, the Island’s renowned professional nonprofit theater, has historic roots. The white clapboard building was erected in 1833 and used for many purposes, including a public meeting hall, a venue for weddings and community meals, and up until 1845, a Methodist Meeting House. In 1982, Eileen Wilson and Isabella McKamy purchased it and created the Vineyard Association of Drama and Art. Bought from the founders in 1993, it continued on as the Vineyard Playhouse. After a large-scale restoration and expansion (2011–14), the Playhouse began anew as Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo has been at the helm since 1986.
“We try to think outside the box and challenge the models by which we’ve been operating. We’re pushing ourselves to try to do better and differently,” Bruder Munafo shared. The mission of Bruder Munafo and the Playhouse staff is to inspire and entertain the diverse community of Martha’s Vineyard. Like many small professional playhouses across the country, they’re also trying to survive. By exploring different forms of art and entertainment, the Playhouse tries to stay current, viable, compelling, and welcoming to both Island residents and visitors. Along with staging plays, they offer music, poetry, visual art shows in their Marilyn Meyerhoff lobby, drama classes, and more. In other words, they’re busy.
Each summer season is eclectic — a little something for everyone. “We’ve always had a diverse selection of plays. We want female playwrights represented, and BIPOC stories are an important part of our repertoire,” Bruder Munafo said. ”We produce vibrant works of Shakespeare, a variety of plays, and highly imaginative original plays for children in the Tisbury Amphitheater.”
This summer is the first full season for the theater since the COVID pandemic. Though closing in March of 2020, the Playhouse didn’t fully stop operating, holding rehearsals on Zoom, and offering limited live performances outdoors in the amphitheater. Happy to be back in full swing, the Playhouse is hopping these days.
“This is an exciting season, and we’re off to a great start. We started early this year. As a matter of fact, we’ve already opened and closed a few fantastic shows,” Bruder Munafo said.
The process for choosing plays isn’t a set formula. “I search for strong scripts, interesting stories, and a compelling reason to do a show,” Bruder Munafo says. “Our process is a bit organic, and often built on relationships we’ve nurtured over the years.”
Sometimes a board member will suggest a play they loved. In other instances, plays are brought to Bruder Munafo’s attention by way of actors who have performed at the Playhouse, playwrights who have a connection to the Island, or simply by chance. This season, nearly every play has a personal connection to the Playhouse.
In May, the theater staged the Irish Repertory Theatre’s “The Smuggler,” by Ronán Noone. “The Smuggler” is a one-man thriller, starring Michael Mellamphy and directed by Conor Bagley. Bruder Munafo had gone to the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City to see the play, loved it, and had planned to stage it in 2020. COVID had other plans, however, but once the world opened up a bit, Bruder Munafo brought “The Smuggler” to the Island.
“Michael Mellamphy, Conor Bagley, and their sound designer came up, we created the set, and off we went,” Bruder Munafo said. “Being able to bring ‘The Smuggler’ here was directly linked to the relationship we’ve built with the Irish Repertory Theatre. It’s so great to work in conjunction with other playhouses across the country.”
“To My White Friends Who Know Me,” which runs from July 19 to 22, is written by playwright, psychologist, educator, and founder of Getting to We, Dr. Deborah L. Plummer, and is directed by Treva Offutt. This frank, funny, and informative story examines cross-racial friendships. “A friend of mine said, ‘You have to meet Deborah and do this play. She’s amazing,’” Bruder Munafo said. “And she is amazing, and incredibly busy. She had only four free days this summer, but because the playwright is such an integral part of the play — leading a post-show conversation — and because we liked the play so much, we chose to stage it despite the short run.”
The variety of plays being staged and voices being heard this season is impressive. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” runs through August 5, and is directed by Katherine Reid, who has been involved with the Playhouse in one form or another since she was 8 years old. At the age of 14, Reed played Juliet in the Playhouse’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Currently, she is the development, marketing, and director of children’s programs. Shifting from Shakespeare to the World Premiere play, Outcasts – the Lepers of Penikese Island – will open August 11 and run through the 26. Outcasts is presented by MV Playhouse in association with Circuit Arts, and is the story of Hansen’s disease patients who, along with those who cared for them, were quarantined to the Elizabeth island leprosarium against their will. This play is inspired by the poems of award-winning poet Eve Rifkah.
Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse has two stages during the summer, the Patricia Neal Stage in the Playhouse, located at 24 Church St. in Vineyard Haven, and the Tisbury Amphitheater at the Tashmoo Overlook in Vineyard Haven.