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Main Stage to Outdoor Amphitheater, Summer Season Goes Dark

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

With this summer’s season canceled at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, the Island loses far more than a series of evenings at the theatre.

Artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo has built the Vineyard Haven playhouse into a programming dynamo, with children’s theatre, outdoor Shakespeare, poetry readings, art shows and musical revues alongside main stage productions and staged readings of new plays.

Rose Styron said she has long been a fixture there as an audience member.

“The playhouse is at the very top of my interests in the arts and entertainment,” she said. “I go constantly, winter and summer, downstairs and upstairs, indoors and out, because it’s such a source of pleasure and learning for me.”

Established nearly four decades ago in an 1833 meeting house on Church street, the playhouse has been led by Ms. Bruder Munafo since its founding director, Eileen Wilson, stepped down in 1995.

Over the decades, it has become a storied theatre and an Island touchstone. Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal read from her memoir on the stage that is now named in her honor. Tony, Emmy and Pulitzer-winning dramatist James Lapine workshopped his production of Claudia Shear’s play about Mae West, Dirty Blonde, at the playhouse before taking it to Broadway in 2000.

“Spalding Grey tried out many of his monologues here,” recalled Ms. Bruder Munafo. “He loved developing his work for a Vineyard audience, and especially at the playhouse because of the intimacy.”

The most recent main stage play, last fall, was a winsome production of Our Town with a cast that mingled professionals and Island community members and was directed by Ms. Bruder Munafo. She was preparing to announce the 2020 summer schedule in mid-March when the playhouse closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, she and the theatre’s trustees made the decision to call off the season.

“We were already in pre-production,” she said. “There’s so much work behind the scenes to put a season up, and so much of it is done in advance, that it was just time to decide.”

This is not the first summer the theatre has been dark. From late 2011 to early 2014, the building underwent a $2.5 million renovation funded by private donors, foundations and grants from the town of Tisbury and the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. But the show went on elsewhere in the summers of 2012 and 2013, with play readings at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, a full production at the high school and multiple Shakespeare plays in the Tisbury Amphitheatre.

“We were actively doing theatre while we were out of the building,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic limiting all forms of physical gathering, there is no place else to go.

The season cancellation means no work, not only for actors and house staff, but for the professional stage and lighting designers, stage managers and directors employed by the playhouse each summer. It also means no Summer Stars and no Fabulists, programs for children and families at the Tisbury Amphitheatre, where the annual Shakespeare production is also scratched.

Playwrights will miss out on the chance to develop their latest work in collaboration with attentive audiences. In addition to presenting early productions of such ground-breaking works as The Laramie Project and The Santaland Diaries, Ms. Bruder Munafo has seen many newer plays go on to larger stages such as Boston’s Huntington Theater and the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, which in one season produced two different works that had been developed here.

One of the most popular summer events at the playhouse has been the Monday Night Specials, a series of one-night, staged readings of works in progress that include post-show dialogues between the playwrights and their audiences.

“It meant everything to me, it really did,” said London-based, American playwright J.B. Miller, whose Mona/Lina was a Monday Night Special last August.

“Writers are always self-isolating; that’s our default lifestyle,” Mr. Miller said. “The reading was such a beautiful process. It’s a beautiful stage, it was really well managed, we had a full house. I was impressed at the cast the playhouse put together on very short notice. It is a magic place.”

Fly, a play about the Tuskegee Airmen, had a playhouse reading 10 years ago that was followed in subsequent seasons by a workshop and a full production, Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

“It has played all over the country,” she said.

While the house remains dark and half the year-round staff is furloughed, the remaining two employees — Ms. Bruder Munafo and manager Geneva Corwin — are coming up with new ways to engage the Island’s theatre-loving community, beginning with a five-minute play challenge on the playhouse website.

On Monday, Ms. Bruder Munafo said she had received more than two dozen submissions to the contest, which ends Wednesday.

“We’ll come up with other fun, engaging online options until we can reopen our doors,” she said. “When we get the all-clear, we’ll jump back in joyfully.”

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