During the off-season, when summer visitors return to their homes and many on the Vineyard take a deep breath, the community of arts producers rolls up their sleeves and starts planning. They attend film festivals, read advance book copies, visit artists’ studios, make cold calls to writers and dancers, and hire summer staff. They also dream about arts-hungry summer audiences.
“I think we have really one of the best audiences in America, for sure,” said MJ Bruder Munafo, executive artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse. “There is such a diversity of people that are here in the summertime, in particular. There are so many intellectuals and writers and artists that are here all year-round, and really it just explodes in the summertime. They are so curious and supportive and intelligent.”
In preparation for this explosion Ms. Bruder Munafo read 14 screenplays this winter. She also produced and co-wrote with Kate Feiffer the theatrical version of My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life, a play that originated at the Vineyard Playhouse and appeared off-Broadway this winter in New York city. But her biggest off-season “production” involved the renovation of the Playhouse itself. The downstairs has been finished but there is still more work to be done on the upstairs stage.
But the show will go on this summer for the Playhouse. The season features seven readings of new plays in the Monday Night Special series held at the Hebrew Center, as well as 20 productions of Henry IV presented outside at the Tashmoo Overlook. In addition, the Playhouse will open the newly renovated Marilyn Meyerhoff lobby to display the work of visual artists, host Lobby Live! music concerts on Tuesday nights and have discussion sessions about theatre on Thursday mornings. The first of four art openings will be on July 6.
Arts organizations on the Island refer to an increasing ability to fulfill their mission as non-profits by extending the reach of their programming. Last summer the Chilmark-based Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival added another night to their lineup by hosting film screenings at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. They will continue this tradition again as well as presenting Free Angela on August 20 at the Performing Arts Center, a documentary about political activist Angela Davis. Ms. Davis will attend the screening.
The festival began as a winter event held each year in March, which it continues to do, and it has also broadened its mission during the off-season through a media literacy program conducted at Island schools.
“We are trying to teach kids how to be critical viewers in the same ways that we are trying to get adults to tune into films in a more sophisticated way,” said Lindsey Scott, director of children’s programming at the festival. Mrs. Scott is also the creator of Cinema Circus held before each Wednesday evening screening at the Chilmark Community Center. With its acrobats, jugglers, stiltwalkers and life-sized puppet elephant, the “Circus” sets the tone for each event.
The atmosphere is “no frills,” said Thomas Bena, executive and creative director of the organization. “Our wealthy patrons say ‘do not build a fancy film center. Here there’s something different and it’s real and please keep that.’”
Movies are followed by discussions led by filmmakers or other principals in the production, which usually turn into a lively debate, he said. It’s all part of their mission to effect change through film, Mr. Bena added. “We are really trying to change the world, in our hearts, in this office, this beehive . . . we are hoping we can add to the community and have some part in affecting our world, dare we say it.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, a biannual event historically based in Chilmark, will also add down-Island to its itinerary this summer as it expands its programming to the Harbor View Hotel. More than 30 authors will attend the festival held on August 3 and 4. The additional day will give authors more exposure through readings and panels. Three authors exploring marriage in their novels will sit on a panel moderated by Kitty Pilgrim, a Menemsha summer resident. Another panel of authors, including Boston Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, will discuss Boston gang culture in connection to the Whitey Bulger case.
Although many of the writers have enjoyed major successes, including Pulitzer Prizes, founder and organizer Suellen Lazarus says they are easy to work with and accessible.
“None of these people are prima donnas,” she said. The festival doesn’t put on any airs either. Authors quickly remove their jackets and ties soon after arriving on-Island. “My instructions are, wear shoes,” Ms. Lazarus said.
The festival creates a space for networking, she added. “A big part of the fun and intellectual stimulation of the weekend is not just authors talking to the public, but to each other. Out of that I think is born more creativity.”
In Oak Bluffs, the Featherstone Center for the Arts, now in its 17th year, is looking forward to a full summer of outdoor music and theatre, exhibitions of local artists, summer camp and visual arts workshops. As a year-round nonprofit, Featherstone is looking further ahead to initiatives that will help sustain them over the long term.
“As an important asset to the Vineyard, we are very future-oriented right now,” said executive director Ann Smith. “We are looking at our facilities and looking at the increasing aging population to make sure our facilities will be here in 10 years.”
Though many arts organizations rely on summer audiences for support, others are seeking ways to sustain a presence on the Island in the winter months. The arts sector makes up 10 per cent of the Island economy, according to Arts Martha’s Vineyard, a local arts and culture collaborative.
“The Yard, for a long time, did its thing in the summer,” said David White, artistic and executive director of the dance nonprofit located in Chilmark. “Now it wants to be owned by the year-round population [as well],” he said. The Yard has struggled to make dance available year-round because their buildings are not winterized, but a recent donation will allow the Yard to renovate its space over the next three years. Mr. White also hopes to develop a dance curriculum for the Island schools.
The Yard’s season began last weekend with two performances created during the Bessie Schönberg mentorship residency and continues well into the month of September with 13 other productions.
The Vineyard Arts Project, a performance and residency venue for choreographers, playwrights and screenwriters, is celebrating its sixth summer in Edgartown. This past spring, Disgraced, a play written by Ayad Akhtar, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It premiered at the New Writers, New Plays festival in 2010.
“We are really proud of our alumni,” said founder and artistic director Ashley Melone. “The goal for me is to take a risk on a young artist that other people wouldn’t necessarily know or produce yet . . . I want the Vineyard to be the birthplace of a lot of those pieces.”
Over the winter, Ms. Melone read scripts and attended theatrical and dance events in New York city and abroad.
“I definitely go on my gut about work I think is particularly exciting in terms of content and form,” she said. The New York-based Public Theater will return this summer for its fourth residency at Vineyard Arts and will produce two staged readings of new plays. Dance Theatre of Harlem, the last act of the season, returns again for three performances in August.
In selecting summer lineups, producers said they consider the appeal of each work to an Island audience, which they say is particularly engaged in the arts — so much so that at many venues the audience is invited to contribute to the creative process. Monday Night Specials produced by the Vineyard Playhouse are followed by question and answer sessions where audience members critique the play they just experienced. At open rehearsals of the The Chamber Music Society, musicians share their process with the audience.
The Chamber Music Society is gearing up for its 43rd summer with a five-concert season to be held on Mondays at the Whaling Church in Edgartown and Tuesdays at the Chilmark Community Center. Pianist and artistic director Delores Stevens began to plan concerts for this summer two years ago — that’s the advance notice musicians require to plan a trip to the Island. The Society looks forward to performances this summer by many world-renowned musicians, including a concert by the Harlem String Quartet to be held on July 15 and 16. This will be the quartet’s third summer on the Vineyard.
Serious planning for the summer season at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury begins the previous September, when the staff discusses the successes of the season just ended. This summer the first show opens on July 7 and features Island artists Alison Shaw, David Wallis and Gigi Horr Liverant, as well as Vermont-based wood sculptor Wendy Lichtensteigner. Gallery owner Chris Morse estimates that artists take a year or two to come out with enough work to show in a coherent gallery show. Most of the artists he represents at the Granary, North Water and Field Galleries have strong Vineyard connections.
Although the art world is recovering from the recession, Mr. Morse said corporate art purchasing is still down, a sector that has historically helped sustain artists through the off-season.
Kate Feiffer, consultant for the Summer Institute film series, spent the winter watching and selecting provocative and moving films for the summer season. The Summer Institute also holds a speaker series on Thursday nights which this year includes Lawrence O’Donnell on July 25 and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz on August 1.
“It has to be a compelling narrative and a smart film that breeds discussion,” Ms. Feiffer said about programming the film series. “I think people here want brainy films . . . I think people will go to the beach the next day and still be talking about what they see.”
She said she felt the Vineyard moviegoing experience has changed dramatically in the last 10 years to the point where “it seems we have more independent art films playing on the Island than Hollywood commercial films.”
The screening of the Melting Away, an Israeli film about a family’s journey with a transgender child, will feature a transgender speaker. Ms. Feiffer said discussing films with an audience adds to, and even completes, the process of filmmaking. Through the process of engaging in dialogue about one’s work, the films “become more than the finite little film . . . they become entrenched in greater conversation,” she said.
This year the Summer Institute film series will be housed at the Film Center in the Tisbury Marketplace, which opened officially at the end of last summer. Previously, the Film Center was limited to movies that were already available in DVD or blue-ray format but it now has access to technology that can screen films still showing in theatres elsewhere. Thus, planning for this season of the Film Center was entirely different than last year.
“We are in a totally different situation now,” said executive director Richard Paradise. “It’s night and day. We are a first-run cinema in many regards.”
Due to their ability to accommodate updated film equipment and a much larger audience, the Film Center can now screen, “any film that we desire from any distributor,” four to six weeks after the film premieres in New York and Los Angeles, Mr. Paradise said. For the first time in the Film Society’s history Mr. Paradise will begin screening movies seven days a week.
In general, producers say getting talented, well-known artists to come to the Island is not exceptionally difficult. It is the Vineyard in the summer, after all. But they also come because they understand a culturally-aware audience awaits them who will also help spread the word about their art.
“The Vineyard lends itself to creative people for the reason that people need to be somewhat creative just to get to an Island,” Mr. Morse added. “Not everyone will make that physical commitment to cross water to get someplace.” He also credits the diverse landscape of the Island, which affords opportunity for visual inspiration.
Ms. Melone agreed that the Vineyard is hardly a tough sell to the artists she hopes to bring here. “They have heard about the magicalness of the Island and the beauty of the space and beauty of working here,” she said. “Getting them to say yes was not a challenge.”
But producers stress that as much as the artists need to be supported and encouraged by a robust summer audience, the Island needs arts year-round.
“The Vineyard communities support creative people, and probably should support them more,” Mr. Morse said. “I don’t think a lot of people get how difficult it is to make a living as an artist.”
The article has been edited to reflect the correct date that the play Disgraced premiered on the Vineyard. It was 2010.