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Playhouse Marks 2020 With Virtual Theatre Series

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

The Covid-19 pandemic has proved to be an artistic springboard for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, which is about to present more new work in a single week online than it normally produces in an entire year on stage. “It really is our biggest project of these last couple of years,” playhouse executive and artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo told the Gazette this week.

From Jan. 10 through Jan. 16, the playhouse is streaming the 12 x ’20 Play Project, a dozen short plays each linked to a different month of the momentous year 2020.

“It occurred to me that one of the main focuses of the playhouse was on developing new plays, and we could certainly do that during the pandemic,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “Our job is to keep spirits up and art alive.”

In another first for the Island’s only year-round theatre, all 12 of the 20-minute plays were commissioned specifically for this project.

“We’ve debuted many new plays and we’ve certainly . . . done readings,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “But we’ve never commissioned a play.”

So why not 12? The concept instantly appealed to playhouse literary manager Jenny Allen, who teamed with Ms. Bruder Munafo to enlist the playwrights.

“One thing a theatre could do is pay a little money and keep writers writing, [and] let playwrights know they were being thought of and that their work had value,” Ms. Allen said.

Responses were immediate and enthusiastic, she said. “Almost everybody that we asked said yes, and the two or three playwrights who said no said no with great regret [because] they had other projects,” Ms. Allen said.

Each playwright was assigned a different month from the year 2020.

“I think we should chronicle 2020, as horrible as it was,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “As theatre artists, part of our job . . . is to report on what’s going on.”

But the writers were given full latitude within that framework, Ms. Allen said. “Because it was such an eventful year, something had happened every month, but we left it up to them what they would write about . . . and what event or events they would bring in,” she said. Chosen to reflect a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, the participating playwrights include both seasoned dramatists and a first-timer enlisted personally by Ms. Bruder Munafo, longtime playhouse worker Laura Jahn.

“Laura is such a beautiful writer,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo, who also coached Ms. Jahn in writing the play inspired by January.

“That one is very close to my heart; it’s very different from all the others,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Titled 2020 Vision, it’s a conversation inspired by real-life events after Chilmark Chocolates closed its doors, with cast members who — like Ms. Jahn herself — had previously worked at the beloved candy shop.

“Her play is really about a deep friendship . . . and trying to find their way in the world [with] invisible disabilities,” Ms. Allen said.

Another Island-related play is Kathleen McGhee-Anderson’s Reticent, which is set in Oak Bluffs and highlights both generational conflict and an enduring sense of place.

“It’s about an older black matriarch whose grandchildren come with an agenda,” Ms. Allen said.

Some playwrights in the series have had playhouse productions in pre-pandemic years, including Ronan Noone (The Second Girl, 2016) and Cusi Cram (Dusty and the Big Bad World, 2017).

Others are new to Vineyard audiences and bring African-American, Asian American and Latinx perspectives to such 2020 events as the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings, Breonna Taylor’s killing by police, and the advent of Covid-19.

“We got this incredible array of plays,” Ms. Allen said. “They’re wildly disparate in terms of subject matter, tone [and] focus and it was just a delight . . . to see what people had done with this assignment.”

“There were times I thought, this is crazy, this is too big,’” said Ms. Bruder Munafo, laughing at the audacity of it all. She wound up casting 24 actors in 29 roles and juggling time zones and schedules to direct all 12 plays on Zoom, in real time, over a single week.

“The logistics were totally challenging,” she said. “It was thrilling.”

Post pandemic, Ms. Bruder Munafo said, she’d like to present all 12 plays in a series on stage, though bringing the playwrights and castmembers to the Island would be a different sort of logistical challenge.

Meanwhile, due to contractual obligations, the plays can only be streamed over a seven-day period, which begins Jan. 10 on the playhouse website.

Ms. Allen recommended watching up to three in a row, depending on the time of day.

“You can get a lovely play in with your cup of coffee,” she said. “Three would be a good, rich evening or afternoon.”

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