Story will be fending for itself this summer on the stages of Martha’s Vineyard. Stripped like the economy (and because of it), this season promises something much more seductive than blockbuster pretense, jaw-dropping set design, or celebrity leads: a glimpse at the so-called creative process.
There will be open rehearsals, workshop readings from emerging playwrights, dialogue with creators, debuts and works in progress. The scaffolding of future productions will be exposed like the lines in drawings that lay out the structure of a masterpiece painting, or the guitar riff that becomes the catch of a classic song. For arts junkies, this Island season has the usual intensity of being concentrated into just a few months, with the added enticement to look carefully at each one, partly just to discover what it is but also because our responses will almost certainly shape the works’ development.
It may be pop star Suzanne Vega’s nascent theatrical study of novelist Carson McCullers; it may be television star and seasonal Islander Amy Brenneman’s take on the nuttiness of her other home, Los Angeles; it may be Vineyard Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo’s full imagining of Vineyard children’s author Kate Feiffer’s book My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life. In one case, the playwright is interested in literally incorporating audience responses into the script; that is the unprecedented, evolving music-theatre-dance spectacle Witness Uganda, based on journal entries, letters and interviews that sprang from a young man who went to Africa and returned with a group of teen orphans to sponsor, a new nonprofit and some kind of docu-drama theatrical experiment. Forget breaking the fourth wall, in many cases it will be shattered and repeatedly crisscrossed.
“We are thinking of it as breaking down not just the fourth wall between the stage and the audience, but between the community and the art that is created in your community,” said Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, who with Brian Ditchfield has for just over a year been cultivating the Island company ArtFarm.
Take New Writers, New Plays, a festival coproduced by ArtFarm and Vineyard Arts Project, the Edgartown dance and residency space growing into a wider program under the direction of Ashley Melone. Three playwrights have been selected to arrive mid-June to work on scripts; a cast will join them the following week. There will be a period of open rehearsals, and then, on a pay-what-you-can basis, a weekend (July 1, 2 and 3) rotation of three staged readings a day. They include: an intense interracial domestic thriller (Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Will Frears); a comedy verging on hysterical about a woman addicted to being a surrogate mother (Big Babies, by Matthew Wilkas, directed by Martha Banta); and Witness Uganda, some kind of cross between journalism and playwrighting, created and conceived by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, trying to answer the question, is changing the world even possible?
As part of the residency, the playwrights also will be contributing to the wider Vineyard arts community — for example, Mr. Wilkins will work with IMP campers, Mr. Akhtar will teach acting.
ArtFarm’s second production this summer is in conjunction with the 40-year-old Island Theatre Workshop, using the outdoor stage at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs to stage spectacles from Pigpen Theatre Company. These incorporate shadow puppetry, group movement, live music, and fantastical lighting. From July 8 to 25, the outdoor show will be on at 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with later performances on Fridays at the Grange in West Tisbury. The university students behind Pigpen will also teach at ITW’s Children’s Theatre (who perform regularly themselves) and serve as artists in residence for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s Cinema Circus program in Chilmark.
“Whatever the project is, we want it rooted in the community,” said Ms. Hardman Ditchfield.
The last of ArtFarm’s summer productions will see seasonal resident and 24/7 Shakespeare source Robert Brustein in to lead audiences through selected scenes from Othello, presented by the Boston-based Actors’ Shakespeare project. This special remounting of scenes from the company’s successful winter production promises discussion about the centuries-old play’s relevance to today’s society, August 10 and 11 at 5 p.m. at Featherstone. “During that time, both Children’s Theatre and IMP have scheduled their Shakespeare segments, so these actors and directors will do workshops with kids during days, and the nights are these conversations with scenes from Othello,” said Ms. Hardman.
Meanwhile Shakespeare continues to be a summer tradition at the Tisbury Amphitheatre, where the Vineyard Playhouse will mount the sparkling Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its run is July 15 to August 15, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays (and one Sunday, August 15 for the final show) at 5 p.m.
The playhouse’s own impish creation, The Fabulists, will take the same idyllic space on Saturday mornings in July and August, spinning golden tales with childlike wonder, for the children.
After its June 11 to 19 workshop debut of My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life (Ms. Feiffer eschewed more lucrative negotiations from city producers to turn it into a musical in favor of letting Ms. Bruder Munafo spin it onto stage here) the playhouse will do a mainstage workshop production of the musical Runaway Beauty Queen. This script, book and lyrics come from real-life runaway Miss Arkansas Rhonda Coullet, who last year performed some of her “rock goddess musical” at Judy Belushi Pisano’s home to raise playhouse funds and previously developed it at the Yard. It will be fully but simply staged and, as Ms. Bruder Munafo puts it, “part of the overall development of Rhonda’s play.” It runs July 1 to 17.
Next at the playhouse in downtown Vineyard Haven is The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, a new comedy about a struggling playwright scheming to get the rights to turn his favorite Woody Allen comedy into a Broadway musical (July 22 to August 7). “It’s super contemporary and the cast are all fabulous young actors of stage and TV and movies,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo of this piece helmed by Johanna McKeon. “What’s notable and different about our production of this play (only the third) is that the author, Sam Forman, is also playing the lead.”
Ms. Bruder Munafo is beloved for using her space for script development (long before it was fashionable or economically imperative) in the popular Monday Night Specials, which showcase works in progress. There will be many this summer, usually for one night only and almost always sold out fast.
Much of August (12 to 28) will see the playhouse turned into a festival space, for its first African American Festival of Music and Theatre, which is to be headlined by the return of Trey Ellis and Richardo Khan’s Tuskegee Airmen homage, Fly. This was a superb production, and it’s ballast for a program that also will include Opera Noire of New York, staged readings and musical guests. The move also is part of an idea to develop a stronger relationship between the playhouse and Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, where Mr. Khan is artistic director, said Ms. Bruder Munafo.
Playhouse artistic associate Joann Green Breuer is bringing her production to street level. From Sept. 2 to 16 her production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, described as “blarney and mystery, twists of memory, and maybe magic, conjured by a trio of heroic hucksters,” will be at the playhouse — downstairs.
Up-Island at the Yard, it’s again much more than dance in the fifth annual summerlong Yard Arts festival, much of it from artists with long associations with the dance colony and the Island more broadly.
Before her small-screen debut Amy Brenneman, the brunette born to two lawyers who is perhaps best known for her work in television’s Judging Amy and LAPD Blue, founded the Cornerstone Theatre Company, a traveling troupe dedicated to encouraging locals to participate in the show. She returns to her theatrical roots with her self-penned performance of Mandala, “a multi-media exploration of one woman’s search for the divine in suburban Los Angeles,” directed by her longtime collaborator Sabrina Peck.
“She’s been coming to the Yard for about 20 years,” said artistic director Wendy Taucher, who was impressed with the script so far for its “very witty, and some very poignant moments.” Mandala runs July 9 to 11.
Producer and Chilmarker Monina von Opel scouts New York for intimate one-person shows to bring to the Yard, and this year it’s Joanna Rush in Asking for It: An Epic Journey from Church to Chorus Line. Directed by Tony nominee Lynn Taylor Corbett, Ms. Rush tells her own story of going from Outstanding Catholic Youth of the Year to streetdwelling Radio City Rockette. “This one-woman show has a lot of movement in it, so it fits,” said Ms. Taucher of the July 23 and 24 slot. “I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s fairly risquÃ©, this life story of someone who was a Rockette and has some real adventures before, during and after.”
In another of its popular opera seasons (“It’s the talk of the tennis courts,” as one patron praised it), the Yard has Chilmark director Claudia Weill bringing Archy and Mehitabel: A Back Alley Opera, along with Ms. Taucher, David Richmond and Cori Ellison’s new translation of Mozart’s Impresario, in shows August 6 to 8 and 13 to 15. This Impresario? “We’re turning nonsinging roles that sing, and dropping in Mozart’s biggest hits from his great Italian operas — which is the kind of thing that was not uncommon in Mozart’s day,” she said with relish.
In late August comes Suzanne Vega in Carson McCullers’ Scientific Theory of Love, which Ms. Taucher called “a very exciting thing,” and which the program calls “an intimate showing of a work in progress.” Ms. Vega and director (and longtime Yard friend) Kay Matchullat are developing the piece in residence this summer at the Yard for production in spring 2011 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York.
Meanwhile, back in Edgartown there are more collaborations with New York companies and artists. Vineyard Arts Project on Upper Main street, with its sprung floor as well as ample sleeping quarters, was once a private studio used occasionally by the annual Steifel and Stars program. This year, in addition to the ArtFarm collaborations, the project’s founder and executive producer Ms. Melone is teaming up with the Public Theatre to house a weeklong writers’ retreat for its Emerging Writers Group. “It’s our first venture into workshops with a professional theatre company,” Ms. Melone said of expanding beyond its exciting choreographers (Dance preview appears on Page Six-A in today’s edition).
From July 18 to 25, the Public playwrights — Chris Cragin, Sukari Jones, Aaron Wigdor Levy, Alejandro Morales, Don Nguyen, Jerome A. Parker, Vickie Ramirez, Alena Smith, Kevin Christopher Snipes, Aladdin Ullah and Pia Wilson — will work on their projects and finish with two readings for the community on Saturday.
“Our mission is to support development of new work,” said Ms. Melone.
She’s also developing young talent, with the third year of a Musical Theatre Lab August 1 to 21 led by Tony winner Scott Wise and nominee Elizabeth Parkinson. After auditions in seven cities, 30 students aged 16 to 21 will train here for three weeks with incredible professional teachers. And again, open studio performances are part of the Vineyard Arts Project plan.
“So often you see completely finished projects,” said Ms. Melone. “It’s something so interesting for the audience to see a different perspective on the process.”
Those masterpieces don’t just spring fully formed from nowhere. Some may spring from right here, this summer.