Playhouse Hosts Spring Festival of Short Works

By JULIA RAPPAPORT

About a week ago, Trudy Russell was sitting at her Olivetti Lettera 25 typewriter with her morning cup of coffee when the phone rang. The woman on the other line introduced herself as M.J. Munafo and told Mrs. Russell that her play, Closure, had been selected for the Vineyard Playhouse spring festival, Island Interludes.

Mrs. Russell had no idea what she was talking about.

Seven years ago, Mrs. Russell, who moved to the Vineyard with her husband in the late 1990s, participated in a writing workshop at Featherstone Art Gallery. A retired psychological social worker, she has always dabbled in writing - children\'s stories, letters, journals - but has never had anything published or produced. After the workshop, she submitted her piece to the Playhouse and soon forgot about it.

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Mrs. Munafo had not. The Playhouse artistic director reads every script that comes into her office. She keeps the promising ones in piles. While reading through the more than 20 submissions the theatre received this year, she came across Mrs. Russell\'s prior submission. After some back and forth, the 73-year-old writer agreed to have her piece produced in the festival.

Tonight will mark the beginning of the fourth annual Island Interludes festival. Billed as an evening of new work by Cape and Island writers, the festival will span two weekends. The performance this weekend consists of four short plays written by Islanders and presented as fully staged readings. The following weekend, Slow Train Coming, a trilogy of short plays by Cape playwright Maureen Hourihan, will take the stage.

Mrs. Munafo has long been an advocate of providing a forum for writers to work on their craft. The Monday Night Special series has been around for years as have the Playhouse short play festivals.

Four years ago, while reading through the many scripts piling up in her office - so many that it was becoming impossible to respond to each submission - Mrs. Munafo decided to devote a few nights solely to Island writers whose work might not ever make it to the main stage. She envisioned it as a way to give back to the community by involving those who normally might not participate in theatre. \"I really believe it\'s important to be involved with the community you\'re in,\" she said.

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Each year, the festival takes on a new flavor. This year, Mrs. Munafo, who selects each script for the event, kept the show smaller than in previous years by deciding to do an evening of four short plays. And they broke with tradition by inviting a writer from off-Island. \"This year we kept it simple, but even so, there is rich programming,\" she said.

The festival\'s adaptability is one of its strengths. \"We can make it as big or as small as we want,\" Mrs. Munafo said. \"We can do it any time of year. The definition of a Vineyarder can be broad. It varies from someone who\'s submitted their first and only script to one of many.\"

This year\'s playwrights are a prime example of the variety that the festival can encompass. Mrs. Russell, although she has been writing for years, has never had any of her work produced or published. This is the first piece that she has ever submitted and she has never used a computer to write.

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Jon Greene, in his mid-20s, went to school for play writing and acting. Three weeks ago, he was backpacking through South America with his girlfriend, Islander Mara Ditchfield. This week, he is directing his own show, Adoption, and acting in another. His piece, a 10-minute play in a series of five about familial relations, is about two gay men who are denied the opportunity to adopt.

Brian Ditchfield, 30, the Playhouse technology and business manager, has been involved with the Playhouse since his years at the Martha\'s Vineyard Regional High School. He was helping Mrs. Munafo read through the scripts she received and it inspired him to try his hand at play writing. \"It was one of those creative opportunities between administrative tasks,\" he said on Tuesday before the show\'s first and only technical rehearsal.

Playhouse production manager Kate Hancock submitted a piece that she wrote seven years ago on the Vineyard while taking care of her dying mother. At the time, she was getting her master\'s degree in theatre criticism and history. This winter, a conversation with Mrs. Munafo about the festival inspired her to submit her script. \"It was just sort of sitting there,\" she said. Mrs. Hancock is in her 50s.

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For the writers, the experience of participating in the show has been an opportunity to see their work come alive and to have a collaborative working experience. \"This is like a playwright\'s dream, to be part of the process and see it unfold,\" Mr. Ditchfield said. Mr. Greene, who before South America had been living in New York city, shared the sentiment. \"In New York, readings happen all the time. It\'s nice to know that the playhouse provides that opportunity for Vineyard writers now,\" he said.

The festival is billed as an opportunity for writers. \"As a writer, it\'s very difficult to get things done,\" Mrs. Hancock said. \"Any time you can see your work get on your feet, it\'s a wonderful experience.\"

However, it quickly turns into an opportunity for each integral component of the theatre. \"For actors, you get to work on a new show,\" Mrs. Hancock continued. \"For the audience, it\'s being a part of the experience at this stage in development. It\'s invigorating for the theater. You get people in at a crucial stage and get them to come back.\"

Mrs. Munafo praised this aspect of the festival. \"The hope to develop new work is the single most important thing of Island Interludes,\" she said.

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For the writers, the process has, in many ways, given them the drive to continue on after this weekend. \"It\'s fun,\" Mr. Ditchfield said. \"It\'s fun to go through this process. It made me excited to keep writing.\"

And Mrs. Russell admits that she has been thinking about getting a computer.

Island Interludes: New Work by Local Writers will be at the Vineyard Playhouse today and tomorrow and on Friday May 18 and Saturday May 19 at 7:30. The price of admission is $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Tickets are available at the door. A talk-back session will follow each performance and a full tea service will be presented by The English Butler in the lobby before and after each show.