Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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The rebuilt Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse will raise its curtain in June

Written by Tony Omer

Photos by Ralph Stewart

Courtesy of

The ceiling above the new control booth retains the curve of the original plastered ceiling.

The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, dark since November 2011, opens for its 32nd season in June following a multi-million dollar renovation of the two-story building on Church Street in Vineyard Haven that has housed the playhouse for more than three decades.

All but the basic shell of the theater has been completely renovated. The new stage, named in memory of actress, Edgartown seasonal resident, and Playhouse patron Patricia Neal, was flipped 180 degrees to allow patrons to enter from the rear rather than from behind the stage as in the old configuration. The seating is new. Most of the new custom woodwork is mahogany or oiled cypress and there are exposed posts running up the walls that complement the trusses.

High-tech computerized lighting and sound systems and a projection system will allow for both advanced stage effects and the showing of high definition films. The redesigned wood paneled first floor lobby retains the bead-board style of the original. Two new ticket windows front an office where the old dressing room was. There is a new kitchen area. The gallery space retains the bead-board style of the original room. It will be used for community meetings, receptions, and parties. The lobby will also house a year-round art gallery. There is also a built-in bar for serving refreshments.

The upstairs theater will be used primarily for Playhouse productions, but it will also be available for live musical events, films, speakers, poetry readings and other events. The new two-story addition includes a full basement, dressing rooms, a new green room, bathrooms, set construction space, a high-tech heating and air conditioning system, and a new elevator.

The renovations, while extensive, have carefully maintained the style of the original 1830s building. Workmen are working multiple shifts to complete the project before the summer season opens.

By day, finish carpenters follow sheetrockers and plasterers to close up newly insulated walls. In the evening the painters and floor finishers move in to meet a June 1 deadline.

It is estimated that once complete, the entire project will cost close to $2.5 million. Donations from theater patrons and Community Preservation Act funds from the town of Tisbury were used to fund the project.

Continuing his quarter century association with the Playhouse, Paul Munafo installs a piece of trim in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse addition.

“There is 181 years of history in this building,” Paul Munafo, the de facto Playhouse building manager, told The Times in a recent interview. “Our goal from the start has always been to preserve this building for another 181 years. I hope that everyone who has worked on this project feels they have made an investment in the future. What we have here is extremely important for Vineyard Haven. There is no other building like this in town.”

Mr. Munafo is also one of the carpenters working on the project. He has been with the Playhouse for over 25 years, as an actor, set builder, production assistant, and former board member. His wife, MJ Bruder Munafo, is the artistic and executive director of the Playhouse.

There are few corners of the building with which he is not familiar. He said the design for the renovation was inspired by the history of the building. “We are constructing a modern, energy-efficient building while retaining and enhancing the historic details of the original.”

The two-story building was a post-and-beam structure built in 1833 as a one-story church. It was later lifted up and a first floor added beneath. It has been at various times a community meeting space and a Masonic Lodge.

An artist’s rendition is a close approximation of how the renovated Playhouse will look when finished.

Mr. Munafo said the general contractor, James Glavin, owner of Deca, Inc., a Vineyard Haven design and construction firm, has been an invaluable part of the project. “It has been his vision that has been the guiding force in the implementation of the basic design concept,” he said, remarking on Mr. Glavin’s eye for details. “Jim has worked with the engineers and the architects to keep the project on track, and he designed much of the detail work himself.”

The renovation began in 2010 with new windows and clapboards. The old rotting siding was replaced by custom milled clapboards on three sides of the building, and a much-needed sprinkler system was installed to protect the aged wooden structure.

The original plan was to open for the summer season in July 2012 and to postpone the main theater renovation until funds were raised. But the decision was made to keep the theater dark that summer after it became apparent that donors might help finance the main theater space renovation as well.

The original trusses from the 1830s, once hidden behind the ceiling, are now a prominent architectural detail in the redesigned theater.

The interior of the theater was stripped including the plastered arched ceiling with its Masonic star light fixture. “When the ceiling was gutted we made an exciting find,” Mr. Munafo said. “It was just happenstance that the building’s original trusses were so great. We decided to leave them exposed.” They are now a primary architectural detail in the redesigned theater.

“It is taking about three times as long as it would have [to build] a new building, but I think rebuilding this building to the same high level of standards that were used when it was first build is worth it,” said Ed McCormick, the informal onsite construction supervisor. “Parts of this building were constructed very well. When we first took sightings of the building we found that the upper frame was only one quarter of an inch out of level.”

The project is still in need of funding, Mr. Munafo said. “The support from the Island community has been enormous, and we are optimistic that our goals will be reached.”

Whale of a tale

The season’s first show will be the world premier of “Whaleship Essex,” which runs from June 19 to July 12. Based on the true story of the whaler sunk by an enraged sperm whale, the play was written by Joe Forbrich and is directed by Peter Zinn. It is a tale of survival infused with authentic sea shanties. There will be a tie-in with a Vineyard Haven harbor visit from the last whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, recently restored by the Mystic Seaport Museum.

The world premier of “Search: Paul Clayton,” a play that celebrates the true story in words and song of one of Bob Dylan’s early musical mentors, Paul Clayton, will take to the stage on July 17.

The New England premiere of “Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing” will run from August 14 to September 6. Set in 1947, when Jackie Robinson had just integrated major league baseball, Satchel Paige (the legendary pitcher from the Negro Leagues and oldest rookie in the major leagues, at 42 in 1948) and his All Stars gear up to play Bob Feller’s All Stars from the majors in a thrilling off-season match-up.

“The Three Musketeers” and “Shakespeare for the Masses” will also be a part of the Playhouse’s summer season.

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