Twenty years ago, a quiet nonprofit organization celebrated its 20th anniversary in signature humble style.
This newspaper did not let the anniversary pass by without a much deserved pat on the back, though a standing ovation would have been more fitting: “Now Island Theatre Workshop is 20 years old, a proud institution at the very hub of the lively Vineyard arts scene,” the editorial proclaimed. “The effects of ITW have echoed into every corner of the performing and visual arts on this Island, providing creative outlets for artists and nourishing opportunities for audiences.”
In the next 20 years, the vagabond theatre group — it has no permanent home — continued to shine and this weekend, the group is celebrating the big 4-0 with four nights of performances. The festivities kicked off last night with an evening of improv comedy and song from the college staff and teens of Children’s Theatre, the summer musical theatre camp begun by the late Mary Payne in 1968. It will continue tonight, Saturday and Sunday with Fabulous at Forty!: a look back at favorite musical numbers of the past four decades.
The birth of the summer camp marked the beginning of the theatre group. The first staged performance was The Barretts of Wimpole Street, a play once performed in 1931 on Broadway with Katharine Cornell cast as English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Since 1968, the group has changed in shape and form. Its numbers have grown and shrunk and theatre has become an increasingly expensive thing to perform. And yet, every summer since its founding, actors ages 8 to 14 have performed two original plays with Children’s Theatre (except for in 1975 when Ms. Payne found a version of Peter Pan and wrote lyrics to turn it into a musical).
What began as a summer program for children now includes five branches with two year-round guilds for adult actors, a studio for young directors and Apprentice Players, begun in 1978 by current artistic director Lee Fierro to provide a wintertime drama experience for young people ages 7 to 15.
In its history, the group has performed an astounding 128 shows, some original (a one-woman show garnered Island actress Taffy McCarthy, an Island Theatre Workshop stalwart, much applause in 2001), some musical (Amahl and the Night Visitors — a classic opera revived more than once — and the King and I), some classics (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Three Sisters, Of Mice and Men). These do not include the wintertime performances of the Apprentice Players and the summertime shows the children perform. “We’ve done classics, we’ve done originals, we’ve done original musicals. All of the Children’s Theatre material is original and every play we did there had a theme, a social theme, that the kids, in their way, they just got it,” Ms. Fierro said.
In 1993, Ms. Payne turned a book by Vineyard author Cynthia Riggs into a play which chronicled the whaling history on Island. “Mary making a play out of From Off-Island was wonderful for people,” said Ms. Fierro. “They were able to get a concept of what Island culture was in the olden days.” Another favorite production for the director was One More River, a play about Harriet Tubman which Ms. Fierro wrote and directed. “I used some of the music from the actual slaves’ music and it was just a perfect time. We had all the right people,” she said. “It was sort of magical because I had not seen a perfect cast like that of that size. There were like 32 people in it and we not only did it on the Island, but were invited to come up to Boston to the C. Walsh Theatre and then the following year, we went down to Newark with it.”
And all of this without a permanent stage to call their own. “Forty years and we still don’t have our own place,” Ms. Fierro lamented. “Mary wanted to be a vagabond and that’s what we have been for 40 years, a vagabond theatre, but it would be lovely to have a place of our own that we could move in and out of.”
A lack of space has forced the group to get creative. The workshop’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream went off outdoors, amid the sculptures at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury. Countless plays have been performed on stage at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Actors in the group have taken bows at locations which no longer exist: the much missed Wintertide Coffeehouse and inside the Tisbury Inn, which burned down in a 2002 fire and was rebuilt as the Mansion House. The Children’s Theatre camp, once held at Grace Church in Tisbury and at the old high school performing arts center, is now staged at the Sailing Camp off Barnes Road. The Outerland nightclub by the Martha’s Vineyard airport, the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown — all have become makeshift theatres, all have helped this group truly live up to its mission of creating community theatre.
For the first six years the group existed, the sole director was Ms. Payne, a small woman whose shrill voice could scare the pants off any actor young or old, aspiring or veteran. Her passion, simply, was theatre. “I think it is the soul of the community, along with music and the arts. It is a tremendously important force for keeping imaginations alive, a tremendous force for growth, not only for the audience but for the students and performers. The arts are what keep us human and I think theatre is perhaps the most human of the arts, because it involves people and language,” she told the Gazette in 1988. Ms. Payne passed away after a brief illness in 1996.
She is the reason Ms. Fierro — the oldest active member of the group, she said — is still involved in theatre. “It was back in 1974 and I had been out of theatre for a long time. I did theatre in both New York and Pennsylvania, but in raising my children, and I eventually had five, I sort of stopped. But along came Jaws and Virginia Poole sort of encouraged me to go down and at least get my picture taken and so that happened. Then, Mary Payne had been in England all winter and she came back to do Children’s Theatre and she needed a bookkeeper. She was able to pay $10 a week, but we were so poor that I accepted the job and that is how I got back into theatre. And once I got back in there, I couldn’t stop,” she said. “Mary recognized this person for what she was and started to try to get me back on the stage. It took me a year to say yes, but I have been there ever since.”
Ms. Fierro became the associate artistic director, sometimes acting in shows, sometimes stage managing and sometimes directing. In 1980, Kaf Warman was hired and the two shared the position. When Ms. Payne died, Ms. Fierro took on the role of artistic director. She recently handed the Children’s Theatre reins to Linda Berg, a longtime musical director with the workshop. Ms. Warman remains ITW associate artistic director and is helping to direct this weekend’s celebratory shows. The performances will include favorite scenes from musicals staged primarily in the past 10 years including Into the Woods, Closer Than Ever, Ruthless and Once Upon a Mattress. Island Theatre Workshop regulars including Jamie Alley, Linda Berg, Don Lyons and Sabrina Luening will all grace the stage. “It’s 40 years and 40 years is pretty amazing for any theatre company to stay afloat and we would just like to celebrate that,” Ms. Warman said. “It’s fun and it makes you say, ‘Oh I wish we could do this all over again.’ It’s been fun to revisit.”
She continued: “I wish another 40 years for ITW. I hope there’s an ITW long after I’m dust, frankly, and it may have to shapeshift a bit to meet the needs of the future, but I hope theatre in general, and ITW specifically, shift in that way so they can still be a vital part of life here.”
Fabulous at Forty! plays tonight, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Spring street in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $15. For more details on Island Theatre Workshop, including how to make a donation, please see online at itwmv.org.