Next Stop Broadway

A reading of Robert Brustein’s Play Seven Elevens II was part of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s Monday Night Specials in 2012. Left to right: Karen MacDonald, Tony Shalhoub, Brooke Adams, Will LeBow, Robert Brustein. Photo by MJ Bruder Munafo

It’s curious how creative cadres arise in a particular setting, at a certain time. Famously, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Picasso and Matisse, among so many others of similar talent and stature, clustered in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century. What provided the ballast for Elizabethan England’s playwrights and poets? And how about that Bloomsbury Circle?

For a long time now, Martha’s Vineyard has been a hotbed for painters, sculptors, and novelists, and in past years, the Island has played host to an array of playwrights trying out and revising new works locally before taking them to the bright lights of big cities.

How did this happen? It’s a simple equation, really, though impossible to micromanage; it needs to develop organically: Playwrights + Stages + Community.

Artists follow artists to specific locales, just the way Hungarian immigrants settle in neighborhoods where Hungarians have already staked their claim. Here on the Vineyard, creative folks have long flourished, perhaps stretching farther back than the early 1900s when a young girl with deep Vineyard roots and great vocal pipes left the Island as Lillian Norton and returned from Europe a famed opera diva, Madame Nordica. Her sumptuous parties in Vineyard Haven attracted multitudes of artists and other performers, some of whom in turn may have conceivably put down summer roots on Martha’s Vineyard. And so it went. In the mid-twentieth century, theater star Katharine Cornell lured the likes of Noël Coward, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and Somerset Maugham to her summer retreat on Lake Tashmoo.

Like many artists, playwrights have long vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard; but what led to a recent stampede to workshop new material here?

Two local theater companies have a lot to do with it: the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, founded in 1982 and known as the Vineyard Playhouse prior to the recent renovation of the theater, and Vineyard Arts Project, hatched in 2004.

Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse

MJ Bruder Munafo has served as the artistic and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse since 1995. The small, professional theater has been involved in the early stages of plays such as Fly, This Island Alone, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing, Stick Fly, Satchmo at the Waldorf, and others that have gone on to Cambridge, New York, and elsewhere. Anyone watching Playhouse productions over the years has learned to recognize Ms. Munafo’s taste for intense drama or compressed musicals enhanced by the intimate setting.

And then there was Spalding Gray, who tried out new monologues on the Playhouse stage. Munafo spoke about Gray to Arts & Ideas. “He loved visiting the Island, each summer renting a house with his wife, Kathie [Russo]. After the film version of Swimming to Cambodia was released, I received a call from his agent asking if I’d help him try out a new monologue called Skating to New England, later renamed It’s a Slippery Slope. Spalding felt comfortable and safe here — as so many artists do. This is a supportive environment, a perfect cocoon for trying out new material. The audience response to Skating was very enthusiastic, which gave Spalding the self-confidence to take it to New York. After that, he workshopped everything here for one week only.”

Island audiences eagerly awaited Gray’s new material, each one-man show performed with a table, a notebook, a glass of water, and a microphone. Every piece encapsulated his life as a work in progress, including his fight with depression, which was thoroughly examined and elucidated for Vineyarders in his final monologue, Life Interrupted.

In January of 2004, Gray went missing after a ride on the Staten Island Ferry; his body was later found in the East River. Munafo attended the writer’s memorial in New York and said, “His table, notebook, a glass of water, and a microphone took up the stage at the Lincoln Center.”

Spalding Gray performing Morning, Noon and Night  at the Vineyard Playhouse in  1999. Photo by Sally Cohn

Spalding Gray performing Morning, Noon and Night at the Vineyard Playhouse in 1999. Photo by Sally Cohn

In recent years, plays by Tony Award–winner James Lapine and Yale Repertory Theater and American Repertory Theater founder Robert Brustein earned some of their first stripes at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Brustein, who received feedback on readings of his Shakespeare trilogy and King of the Schnorrers, wrote in an email, “A lot of hungry playwrights on the Island, me included, owe a deep debt of gratitude to MJ Bruder Munafo, Joann [Green] Breuer [an artistic associate at the Playhouse], and the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse for nurturing our work through Monday readings and performances. Many a good American play got its start being read aloud by generous actors on Church Street.”

Munafo explained that the process generally begins long before she even sees a script. “It usually starts with playwrights holding readings in their living rooms. After that, they’re likely to rewrite as they conduct readings in their own local theaters. If it comes to our attention and we like it, we present it at one of our Monday Night Specials.”

Monday Night Specials, in which actors read plays with scripts in hand, have been a Playhouse staple since 1999. This summer’s lineup at the Playhouse includes two world premieres of musicals that had staged readings at the Monday night series.

One of those musicals is Search: Paul Clayton, written by Larry Mollin. Mollin’s ties to both the theater and the Island go back to the 1960s, when he was part of the merry band of the Ithaca College summer stock company, the Vineyard Players, who created magic out of the bare nothingness of the old Oak Bluffs School gym. [Disclosure: this reporter and Larry Mollin have been friends since the 1970s.] In a recent phone conversation with Mollin, who was in Los Angeles, he explained, “We did immersive theater plays. Those are the ones that break down the barriers between audience and actors.”

Ken Baltin and Ella Dershowitz in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of Larry Mollin’s play The Screenwriter’s Daughter. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Ken Baltin and Ella Dershowitz in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of Larry Mollin’s play The Screenwriter’s Daughter. Photo by Ralph Stewart

After a successful career as a Hollywood television writer and executive producer (CHiPs and Beverly Hills, 90210),
Mollin returned to his first love, the writing of plays. The story of the once stupendously successful screenwriter Ben Hecht and his troubled, activist daughter, actor Jenny Hecht, whom Mollin knew from New York’s trailblazing the Living Theatre in the 1960s, intrigued him mightily.

He said, “I’ve always been drawn to what I call narrative non-fiction. I showed the script to Bob Brustein, and [a] mutual friend . . . nudged him to read it — that’s an example of how projects click on the Island through networks of friends. Bob liked it, and championed it to MJ. We had a staged reading, then a full production the following summer. In the first weekend, Bob Brustein played Ben Hecht.”

The process has come around again with Mollin’s new play, Search: Paul Clayton, about a folk singer in the 1950s and ’60s who was an early mentor of Bob Dylan — a mentor who is ultimately betrayed by his shining star. Last summer, after a staged reading of Search: Paul Clayton with a roster of Island musicians, among them Jemima James, Danny Jensen, Alex Karalekas, and Larry’s son Johnnie Mollin, Munafo committed to a full production. Tony-nominated director Randal Myler starts rehearsals on June 30, and the play with Bob Dylan at the dark heart of the story will open on July 17. “I can’t imagine everything coming together so perfectly anywhere else in America. The Vineyard cultivates playwrights the way it also grows beach plums and turns them into jars of jam,” said Mollin.

Brustein added to that sentiment. “The main difference [between mounting readings or productions on the Island or in the city] is that you have the advantage of working with theatrical friends on the Vineyard (as well as friends that you are allowed to import from the mainland). The plethora of good actors and directors and playwrights on the Island creates a warm-hearted creative community that is second to none.”

Vineyard Arts Project

The more recently founded Vineyard Arts Project (VAP) was created by Ashley Melone. Her co-producer is Brooke Hardman, of the late, dynamic ArtFarm. VAP’s sprawling campus on Upper Main Street, Edgartown, close to Stop & Shop, supports four studios and two houses, with 23 bedrooms between them — a theater producer’s Shangri-La.

Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews rehearsing their work in progress Witness Uganda, at Vineyard Arts Project in 2010. Photo by Ashley Melone

Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews rehearsing their work in progress Witness Uganda, at Vineyard Arts Project in 2010. Photo by Ashley Melone

Melone and Hardman invite playwrights and performers to our shores for two-week residencies. In a phone interview, Melone explained, “We choose playwrights to come to New Writers. New Plays. based on how excited we are by the proposed project. We read a draft of every script to gauge whether or not it has potential to grow, but we must have a ‘love spark’ of sorts with it in order to bring it to Vineyard Arts.”

Hardman expanded on that theme: “We believe artists need to detach from their day-to-day life to be creative. We pay them a small stipend and their travel expenses so we can free them up to pursue their passion.”

“It’s important to get artists out of an urban environment. We offer residencies for people from Boston, L.A., and London, essentially all over the world,” added Melone. “In order to work at the top of their form, creative people need to escape their regular lives. Here, they can write all morning, then take walks on the beach or ride their bikes to South Beach. It’s soothing and therefore transformative to their work.”

Already, several works nurtured in their infant stages at VAP have had successful productions in Boston and New York. Witness Uganda, by Matt Gould (an old college chum of Ms. Hardman’s) and Griffin Matthews, about the latter’s volunteer work in Africa, played at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in the spring of 2014; and Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, a one-act play about a dinner party gone hideously and yet rollickingly awry, garnered the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Add to that James Lapine’s newest play Act One, which recently opened at Lincoln Center Theater with a cast that includes Tony Shalhoub, who was also cast in the 2012 VAP reading of the play. (About Shalhoub’s performance, reviewer Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, “If only the Tony Awards nominating committee would see fit to expand its categories . . . for the best performance by a single actor in more than one role, it is [drum roll] Mr. Shalhoub.” )

They have also enlisted new projects from the Public Theater, PigPen Theatre Co., and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Last summer’s program brought us an Obie Award–winning experimental theater group called Elevator Repair Service, in a staged reading of a multi-media piece called
Arguendo, a courtroom drama involving First Amendment rights brought by a group of exotic dancers in 1991. Also on offer was a seven-hour reading of The Great Gatsby, cheekily titled Gatz. Stew and Heidi Rodewald, creators of the hit musical Passing Strange (made into a documentary film by Spike Lee) workshopped a new musical, The Total Bent, steeped in the foot-stomping world of gospel music.

New Writers. New Plays. Rehearsal for a Tanya Saracho play at VAP in 2011. Photo by Matthew Murphy

New Writers. New Plays. Rehearsal for a Tanya Saracho play at VAP in 2011. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Melone said artists in their free time gather in the wide, white, expansive kitchen, where she’s usually on hand for counseling. “Writers struggle so hard and all of them are sometimes brought low by insecurity. I’ve had Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winners break down and say, ‘I hate my play. I’m a lousy writer.’ This is when I tell them to get out, take a walk. Being here always helps.”

Hardman believes playwrights feel free to test-run new material without the usual pressures of a city performance where they might stress about, for instance, the agent they’ve invited to sit in on a reading. “There are, of course, agents and producers and other VIPs in audiences here, but it’s not about them. It’s about the audience as a whole and how it reacts.” She adds that playwrights meet at Vineyard Arts Project, then continue their working relationship in the city: It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

One particular benefit of workshopping new plays on the Island, according to Robert Brustein, is, “The capacity to measure what works and what doesn’t, plus the advice and counsel of very wise friends about where it needs to go. I suspect the Vineyard will soon become one of the major breeding grounds in the country for new works.”

From Spalding Gray’s tentative new monologues to Melone’s coffee klatches with playwrights and their self-doubts, we see a common thread running through our Island, in the old days considered a sanitarium for physical healing, now an incubator of playwrights’ untried scripts. That fabled journey of a thousand miles? The first step may safely begin on these shores.

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