Island Theatre Workshop (ITW) is humming again with activity as it prepares for its big fall production, “Little Shop of Horrors.” ITW has been an important Vineyard institution since its founding in 1968 as a summer theater program for children that today continues to provide educational experiences, as well as a variety of plays and musicals throughout the year.
The group got its start 55 years ago with Mary Payne. By about the fourth year, so many parents were involved that the organization morphed into a year-round teaching and performing group for children and adults. It continued strong under Lee Fierro’s and then Kaf Warman’s leadership, and today thrives with its present artistic director, Kevin Ryan, who stepped into the role in 2015 and is also a board member.
ITW has grown to present anywhere from three to five shows a year. As a volunteer, nonprofessional community theater, all the performers donate their time and talents for the love of theater. “We have pretty much lived year-to-year by the receipts,” says Ryan. And even though everyone pitches in building sets, making costumes, and gathering props, there are expenses. Productions can run from $21,000 to $26,000 when you have cumulative costs of royalties, backdrops, and special items such as the four puppets they have leased from a Broadway company that are needed for “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The puppets, in fact, are central to this sci-fi/horror musical that has an electrifying 1960s pop-rock score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, in the style of early 1960s rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, and early Motown. The musical is loosely based on the low-budget 1960 black comedy film “The Little Shop of Horrors.” In it, an unhappy florist assistant happens upon a strange plant that he names “Audrey II” after a crush at the shop, and the plant has an unquenchable thirst for human blood. And the creature is played by none other than a series of increasingly large and ominous puppets.
Ryan talked about how he selected this particular musical for ITW’s next production: “I tend to have a queue of possible shows. After the last one, I had two or three performers come and tell me that they would really like to do ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ When people say, ‘We really want this, we want to be in it, and we think the Island audience would want to see it’ — this year’s choice was a no-brainer,” adding, “Everybody still had to audition, though.”
Asked why he was interested in the musical, Ryan explains that in addition to being funny, it’s about life being threatened by a more powerful source. And what are you willing to do to stand up against it? “This is a force that needs to be dealt with, and I think it can be difficult for people to negotiate things like that,” Ryan says.
Although “Little Shop of Horrors” is good fun, it also has a character who abuses women, so ITW cut back on some of the graphic details, and is partnering with Connect to End Violence with a talkback one night and an information table at every show. They will also receive some of the proceeds. “There are a lot of layers to the show of what’s happening in life every day — people in dead-end jobs who can’t make ends meet, people being abused, and greed,” Ryan explains. He adds that after doing the classic tales the past few years, like “Mary Poppins” and “Cinderella,” it was time to do a show tackling other issues.
There will be eight performances of “Little Shop of Horrors,” after which ITW will present a holiday spectacular in December that they hope becomes an annual tradition, a revue of holiday music. In late February or early March, there will be a series of one-act plays, which is sometimes a chance for new directors to get their feet wet working alongside a seasoned one. For spring, ITW is looking to bring a short musical comedy, but is keeping its identity under wraps. And never at rest, they will be auditioning simultaneously for next September’s show.
Cast size can vary drastically from as few as five to seven people to 20 to 25 actors, and then a crew of 10 to 12 backstage. Auditioning over the years has developed, changed, and morphed. There was a time when principals were hand-picked ahead of time, and then the chorus was whoever came out. Ryan emphasizes, “I don’t believe in that. All of our auditions have to be open auditions, for 8-year-olds and up. You never know what’s going to happen. In this show, we have somebody brand-new to our organization in a lead role. We have some people who have been in 20 shows who are in small parts. All that matters is that we choose from our pool the best possible cast for the characters.”
And starting on Sept. 21, you’ll have eight chances to see who from our community is tripping the light fantastic in its current production.
Performances Sept. 21 through 24, and Sept. 28 through Oct. 1, at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center. For tickets and information, visit itwmvy.org/productions.