THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The Season Is Summer, but the Fare Is Not Stock

By Patrick Healy
July 12, 2009
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VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass.

M J BRUDER MUNAFO never had any real interest in theater until she became a year-round resident of Martha’s Vinyard in 1975, when she began assisting with props for shows as a way of becoming involved in her new community.

She quickly became a theater critic of sorts as well, if her private thoughts were any measure.

“I remember watching rehearsals and thinking, ‘I don’t understand why the director is doing it that way,’ or ‘I don’t understand why we’re doing yet another production of “Guys and Dolls,” ’ ” she said. “It sort of set me on a course.”

For the last 14 years Ms. Munafo has been artistic director and producer of the Vineyard Playhouse here, a year-round professional stage that gives new, serious meaning to the idea of community theater. The Vineyard being the Vineyard, its community includes Tony- and Oscar-winning artists and as-yet-undiscovered talents, and the 120-seat black-box playhouse has emerged as a bustling gathering place for all of them to work.

“This isn’t summer theater; this isn’t just putting on ‘No, No, Nanette,’ ” said Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and island resident whose play “Knock, Knock” was produced at the Playhouse in 2006. “It’s also trying to do theater in an honest, direct way that tries to engage our minds and emotions.”

The first of this summer’s three productions, “Fly,” was one of many playhouse shows that fit Mr. Feiffer’s description. With a bare-bones set and a cast of mostly Actors’ Equity members, “Fly” is a moving drama about the racism and other challenges faced by the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. The play, by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education — not your standard theater fare in most summertime tourist spots.

Ms. Munafo said she chose to produce “Fly” in part because “African-American theater is very much part of our formula,” given the large black population in the Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs. Black and white island residents don’t socialize much, she said, so she has tried to turn the playhouse into one place where they do.

“A lot of theaters set up shop in a community but don’t really involve or reflect the community,” Ms. Munafo said. “Integrating the community into the playhouse has been an essential goal of mine.”

Summer theater on the Vineyard has been produced on and off since at least the early 1900s, when the Rice Playhouse in Oak Bluffs put on shows for both adults and children. In addition to the Playhouse, a performing arts center called the Yard produces dance, opera and some theater.

The island’s roots are clearly entwined in the playhouse’s programming. Mr. Khan, a writer of “Fly,” has been coming here for years. The next production, “Walking the Volcano,” an experimental “short play progression” about relationships from the 1960s onward, which begins performances on Wednesday, is by a year-round Vineyard resident, Jon Lipsky.

Mr. Lipsky, who teaches playwriting and acting at Boston University, said he chose to leave the Boston area and move here 14 years ago in large part because of the playhouse. “There’s something special when your audience is not an anonymous crowd but instead your dentist, your kid’s soccer coach, the guy who built your house, other artists in the community,” he said. “People talk about having a wonderful theater community in Boston, but that word is misused. A community is people who are different from one another and who come together, as we have at the playhouse — not a theater clique or a theater gang.”

Ms. Munafo is hardly a product of the theater establishment. After graduating from high school in New Jersey in 1974 and arriving on the Vineyard a year later, she worked as a waitress and a delivery truck driver, among other jobs, while also becoming active in community theater. She landed a role in the playhouse’s production of “Bus Stop” in 1984 and soon after became the business manager for the theater while also directing plays there. She studied theater at Harvard Extension School in the 1990s and became artistic director in 1995; she is now both producer and artistic director, overseeing an annual budget of $500,000 and earning a $47,500 salary.

Located in Vineyard Haven, the playhouse was built in 1833 as a Methodist meeting house. It also served, for many decades, as a Masonic lodge.

The theater was established in 1982, and its history is conspicuously well documented in the large ground-floor lobby where production photos of actors, well known and otherwise, cover the walls. Mia Farrow, James Lapine and Amy Brenneman are among those who have worked at the Playhouse and live on or visit the Vineyard. Mr. Lapine and Ms. Brenneman serve on its honorary board, along with the Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal and the director and critic Robert Brustein, among others.

Earned income accounts for about half of the playhouse’s budget; the rest comes from donors and grants from the Liman Foundation, the Shubert Foundation and other foundations and from local corporate sponsors like Cronig’s Market. Tickets range from $25 to $37.50, while an annual summer Shakespeare production, at a nearby outdoor amphitheater, costs about half that. (This summer’s production is “The Taming of the Shrew,” beginning July 22; the third production at the playhouse is Kathleen Tolan’s “Memory House.”)

Ms. Munafo is attempting to raise a few million dollars to renovate and expand the playhouse, which has one cramped dressing room for the actors and nooks that are packed with props and equipment.

In May the playhouse held its first New York City fund-raiser to support the expansion. Mr. Feiffer, one of the main speakers, used the moment to amplify Ms. Munafo’s fund-raising pitch with a bit of visually rich cartoonist humor.

“I noted that she was talking about raising millions of dollars to renovate the theater, even though we are in the middle of the greatest depression since 1929, and that it all made a thought balloon appear over my head: ‘Oy vey,’ ” Mr. Feiffer recalled. “But she and her team have great drive, and if anyone can pull it off, they can.”