Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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24 Church Street, Box 2452, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 | 508-696-6300

Embracing the Theatre of Life

by Mollie Doyle, Vineyard Gazette

It’s June 5 and MJ Bruder Munafo has her running shoes on. In just a few weeks the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse will begin its summer season and rehearsals begin today. The executive and artistic director has been out of the house since 6 a.m. First, coffee with friends followed by a walk. Then she stopped in to check on her 92-year-old mother in law Lucy Munafo at Woodside Village.

“I am a big advocate for taking care of our elders,” she says. “My mother died here on the Island in her apartment. My father died in our house.”

Arriving at the playhouse, she flips a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses up on her head and greets technical director Carl Gosselin.

“Busy night last night?” she asks.

Carl nods. The actors for Gwyn McAllister’s farce Passionata, the first play of the season, arrived late yesterday (opening night is June 26).

MJ moves inside the playhouse’s art space, admiring the current solo show of drawings by Jack Ryan. “He works at the West Tisbury Post Office,” she says. “Aren’t they wonderful? Heather Goff will have a show here in July. I like supporting people who live here.”

Stage manager Jynelly Rosario rushes past, calling out: “The rehearsal space is ready.”

JP Hitesman, production manager, arrives next and they discuss the paperwork that needs to be brought over to the rehearsal space, in the old Beadniks building next door.

It’s all in a day’s work, running a year-round playhouse and arts space on the cusp of another summer season. Beyond staging four full productions at the playhouse this summer and Shakespeare and The Fabulists at the Tisbury Amphitheatre, there are poetry nights, readings on Monday nights, a theatre program for young adults with disabilities, year-round theatre programs for children, art shows, and programs like Fish Tales, where fishermen and women come and tell their stories.

And it is all overseen by a woman who never studied theatre in school.

“I didn’t graduate from college until I was 40,” MJ says. “I got my degree from the Harvard Extension. I never did theatre before I came to the Island. My education for the theatre has been in the theatre. Sandy Stewart got me involved. I’ve done everything here, stage managed, produced, directed.

Mary Josephine Bruder was born in Jersey City, N.J. and raised in Redbank and Rumson. “My mom was a reporter when very few women worked as reporters,” she says. “And my dad was a career counselor at Jersey City College. I was one of five. I have three sisters and one brother who died of cancer when he was just 36. That broke my heart.”

She moved to the Island when she was 19 and never looked back. In 1982 she met Paul Munafo and they were married in 1984. While Paul’s main work is as a builder, together they have put on countless plays and projects. Beyond doing the occasional acting stint, Paul serves as the facilities manager and master carpenter for the playhouse. But as MJ tells it, their biggest, best project has been raising Paul’s two girls Jenik and Koran, and getting to hang out with Jenik’s two daughters. Koran now lives in Hawaii and has three sons.

Abigail Rose Solomon, an actress in Passionata, pokes her head into MJ’s office, which doubles as the playhouse box office and is decorated with prop plants, an overflowing bookshelf of plays and photographs of some of the Island’s theatre legends like Patricia Neal, along with some of MJ’s former students.

MJ congratulates Abigail, who is also one of the producers of Three Tall Women, on being nominated for a Tony Award.

Moments later, Molly Densmore arrives, one of the female leads. After a brief chat with both women, MJ tells them they need to head over to the rehearsal space next door for an Equity business meeting. Finty Kelly arrives next. She will be playing an evangelical young lady. “Thank goodness you are here,” MJ exclaims. “You are the only one who is authentically British! Feel free to weigh in on everyone’s accents.”

While she may have the only authentic British accent and passport, Finty does not have her Equity card yet, so she cannot attend the official Equity meeting. MJ brings her back to the playhouse to join her for coffee making.

“Over the years, I have learned that not everyone knows how to use a coffee machine,” MJ says, then pauses. “Or maybe I coach this way from working with children for so long. With children, you have to spell everything out.”

She laughs. “Can’t you tell I’m a director? So controlling. We get pies from Pie Chicks and I insist on being the only one who cuts them. This way I am sure we have even servings.”

Mona Hennessy, playhouse prop master, arrives with fake roses for MJ to inspect.

“Mona moved here a year and a half ago. She’s also a professional actress,” MJ says as she looks the flowers over. “The play involves flowers. It’s tricky. I would love to use real ones, especially since our theatre is so small. People up front will see that these are fake, but real ones will fall apart.”

MJ walks Mona out toward the rehearsal space just as playwright Gwyn McAllister pulls up in her car with Felix, her 17-year-old dog. She steps out looking very much the role of a New York playwright, wearing a T-shirt, ripped jeans, black flats, big glasses and a long pink scarf draped around her throat. Gwyn started her life thinking she was going into business, studying at the Wharton School. Now she divides her time between New York and Oak Bluffs. Beyond writing, Gwyn designed the MV license plate, works as copywriter and sells vintage clothes.

“Oh, I have the costumes in my back seat,” she recalls.

“It’s very unconventional for a playwright to help with costumes, but Gwyn has access to some great period clothes,” MJ says.

She walks back inside the playhouse.

“I have always tried as hard as I can to represent female writers and artists,” MJ says. “Jenny Allen, our literary manager, helps me select the plays for each season and we really loved Gwyn’s work. It feels particularly good to start with a woman’s perspective this year.”

Geneva Corwin, the playhouse business manager, arrives and they discuss the morning. Later MJ walks upstairs into the playhouse’s black box theatre to explain how the set is going to work. The stage is small, maybe only 15 feet or so in depth.

“It’s incredible what great set design can do,” she says. “Even the actors are surprised by how small it is when they have worked on a show and then come in here and see it naked like this.”

She discusses the recent $2 million renovation at the playhouse.

“We spent a lot of time talking about seating. We could have squeezed more seats in, but I wanted people to be comfortable. I just love that we now see the building’s original trusses. We found them underneath the plaster and just cleaned them off.” She pauses. “There are so many spirits here.”

The first table read takes place next door in a space used in the off-season by the children’s dance company Kaleidoscope Dance. Pink curtains cast a warm glow over the room. Ballet barres and mirrors are pushed off to the side. The cast, stage manager, lighting designer, set designer and costume designers all gather around a table and read through the play with MJ, who in addition to all her other roles is the director of Passionata. Paul is also part of the cast.

“I pride myself in my casting,” MJ says. “I like working with talented, nice people.” She pauses for a beat. “Full disclosure: Paul and I are married.”

Everyone laughs.

“Well, I have not done this in ages and I’m a little nervous to be working with such great company,” Paul says.

Others nod. They are nervous too.

“Well, let’s do the camp thing and go around and introduce ourselves,” MJ suggests.

They discover several cast members are Pisces, live in New York and many have strong Vineyard connections.

“Okay, it’s time to begin,” MJ says. “Jynelly, I’ll read the stage directions for today. Act I, 1909-1910. Summertime. A courtyard at Hollington, an English country manor house.”

Opening night for Passionata, written by Gwyn McAllister and directed by MJ Bruder Munafo, is June 26. The play runs through July 14. Visit mvplayhouse.org for tickets.

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