They are accidental partners in crime — two theatre teachers, both formally educated in the dramatic arts, who wound up on the Vineyard. Each has long ties to the Island. Kate Murray, who is the daughter of Capt. Everett and the late Virginia Poole, was born here. Donna Swift was a summer kid-turned year-round kid who has a familiar Vineyard story: just one more summer on the Island before a real job in the real world. But the real job turned out to be on-Island for both women, one as the director of the theatre program at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, the other as the director of a long-running improvisational program for young people. Kate Murray and Donna Swift complement each other, critique each other and sometimes lean on each other. They are a pretty good act.
Interviews by Alexander Trowbridge
I’m a native of the Vineyard and I did theatre from the time I was very, very little here. My maiden name is Poole, so I come from a long line of fishermen and teachers. My mother Virginia Poole was a teacher and did a lot of theatre herself. She used to help Duncan Ross with some of his theatre projects here at the high school. He was the teacher who was here for the 31 years before me. My mom worked with him and she worked with other theatre groups and she started some of her own stuff. So I think I got the love of theatre from my mom and learned a lot from her. Unfortunately, she passed away this year.
I went to Boston University school for theatre arts and majored in theatre studies. After I graduated from B.U., I went to L.A. and started working on acting there. I wasn’t really fond of it so I came back to the Vineyard. I met my husband and decided to stay because I fell in love with him.
The way that Donna and I got connected was through mutual friends at the Island Theatre Workshop. We didn’t actually work together there but we sort of overlapped with me being on the board and she joined as a staff member in the summers.
I also worked as an actor with Troubled Shores, the comedy lab which Donna was in charge of. She and I overlapped as professional actors, directors and stage managers.
Then our kids started to overlap. I was directing at the Oak Bluffs school for two years. When I left to come to the high school, Donna took over the shows at the Oak Bluffs school. That’s when our kids really started to overlap. She had her IMP troupe, which were a lot of kids who were in my classes here and she had the kids that I had had who were younger at Oak Bluffs.
Since we had actors in common and tech kids in common, we started being able to talk about our experiences with directing shows. It’s fabulous when you can bounce ideas off of someone and get information and insights. You have someone who actually knows the situations or the group that you’re talking about and those dynamics. As a theatre teacher on this Island you’re really isolated in a lot of ways. We only have one high school drama teacher — I don’t have a whole staff to bounce things off of. As a director of musicals in junior high, she doesn’t really have a lot of people to bounce things off of. It’s different to have someone who majored in theatre — that that’s their focus and you can talk with them about your experiences.
I think different approaches get different results. Donna and I complement each other because our strengths are different but we share common experiences. She’s so incredible with improvisation and improvisation truly is not my strength. Some of the kids who had me before and some of the kids who had her before were learning a new approach. And sometimes there’s resistance to change. But eventually, if you’re a strong teacher, they’ll come around and try something new. Our job as teacher-director is to encourage that.
Donna and I both encourage students to really question things and critique things — in fact, I know that we do because we’ve talked about it. We want them to be reflective and perfect their craft. Strive for excellence, strive to try something new, take risks, really commit yourself.
We both, I know, feel very strongly about professionalism. Although we may do it differently in our approach, it’s common ground.
Donna and I have different approaches to teaching, for sure. I think every teacher has hard, soft, reprimanding and nurturing qualities. There are different situations where you use different tactics.
I know that the kids perceive me as sort of a nurturing mom type in some ways and I am. Sometimes that’s a strength and sometimes it’s a weakness. I’m very consistent, but maybe I’m not necessarily as strict as I should be. For me, that’s my approach.
Her program is phenomenal. It gives kids the opportunity to go out, be professional performers and become a part of an ensemble troupe, which is what I’m teaching here. Ensemble is the big thing. It’s the key. If you are a real part of that team, of that ensemble, everybody’s going to get a lot more out of it. Donna provides that experience in a very professional setting. They’re out and they’re making money with the tickets. It’s taking the stuff that we do here and furthering it.
It’s a big impact.
Honestly she and I haven’t worked together recently. The actual hands-on work that we’ve had together hasn’t been that much. It’s more about bouncing stuff off of each other and knowing that we have an overlap of students. Because we work so intensely with our students, I feel connected to her sometimes just by the students. We’ll do an improv activity in here and they’ll go, “Oh yeah, we were doing this the other night during rehearsal and Donna said this or we learned this.” It’s great because either they’re telling us something that I didn’t think of or they’re reinforcing something that I’ve been trying to teach. There’s this sharing that isn’t even necessarily because Donna and I are sitting here talking together. There’s a sharing because we have that connection and the kids know we’re connected.
I’ve invited Donna in during some rehearsals to watch and give notes to me to give to the kids. My concern with doing that with some people is that they’ll then go and give notes to the kids somewhere else. Donna and I have worked out a system of “Okay, this is your show and I will talk to you about it. But then you can choose to give them the notes that you feel fit.” I think that’s really important to respect each other as directors and teachers.
And she gives solid critiques that make sense. Sometimes when you’re directing kids, you’re looking at something so intensely and you’re just looking at these two people talking and there’s this group over here that’s doing something random and you haven’t gotten to it yet. Donna as a professional has a really strong eye. It’s invaluable for me to have her on the island to call upon when I need that.
I was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Right outside of Hartford, in Newington. And I lived there all the way through high school and then I went to Emerson College in Boston. While I was in college, my mother didn’t want to live in our Connecticut fixer-upper any more so my parents moved here. I have the typical Vineyard story: “I’ll come to the Vineyard for one more summer after I graduate . . . still here.”
I met my husband, who won’t leave Edgartown, never mind Martha’s Vineyard. And that’s when I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna live here.”
I started doing improv with a group on the Island — their name was WIMP. It was really informal. We would do these shows, and we would get half the money from the door, which at the beginning was like ten bucks or something. We started putting all of this money in a bag. When we got to the point where we were like, “what should we do with this money you guys?” We decided to give it to charity.
We performed together for 13 years. Toward the end of that, I said to another member, “You know everyone’s going off to do different projects. That basically leaves you and me.” So we started teaching improv classes to adults. And then my two stepsons were like, “Why don’t you teach it to kids?” So what started with one class has grown. That was seven or eight years ago.
When I started working with the kids, I found that I was getting way more satisfaction out of teaching and directing than I ever was out of performing, and I love performing. It just sort of happened. It definitely wasn’t like, “Well, I think I’m going to live on the Vineyard for the rest of my life and start a theatre company,” it was just sort of like, “Well, this is just sort of the next logical step.”
I’m very lucky that I get to support myself just doing theatre, but I have to do a lot of different things. I direct the musicals in Oak Bluffs and in Edgartown. Then I also have the nonprofit IMP program. The first time Kate and I met was at the Vineyard Playhouse. She was playing the lead character in their outdoor show and I was doing stage management and the box office. That was right out of college so it must have been ’91, maybe. We just met briefly. It was sort of as colleagues both working in the same theatre. The next time our paths crossed was when I was working at children’s theatre. She was on the board of directors. It again was one of those “Hi, how are you doing,” sort of things.
I’d say we probably really started working together when she took the job that I have now directing the Oak Bluffs schools shows. She had that job for a year. And we started talking about teaching theatre. I was teaching the IMP classes at that point and we had a lot of crossovers. Some of the same kids. When she got the job at the high school, I started directing in the job that she had. It was interesting because she was passing those kids off to me, but at the same time, I was working with kids and then passing them off up to her.
When my improv program expanded from middle-schoolers to high-schoolers, suddenly Kate and I found that we were sharing kids, that’s when we really started working together. Mostly we talk, more when there’s a problem or an issue. At first it was really hard to get kids to understand that there’s no difference between improv and scripted theatre. It’s all the same thing. That was something that we really kind of worked together on.
It’s kind of unspoken and interesting. We work through the kids.
She can spot something in one of my performers and work on it, and then it feeds over into the improv that they’re doing and vice versa.
Kate and I don’t meet once a week, or meet once a month or talk, it’s just sort of as things come up.
I think of one student in particular who was very into theatre. He had an attitude and Kate would call me. We would both talk and I would have to say to him, “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean one’s better than the other. It’s just different.”
That student actually, as he matured, said, “I realized I was really mad at Kate for a while because she wasn’t doing it the way Donna did it.”
But Kate noticed in this student something that I didn’t even notice: That he worked a lot with his hands. So she decided in order to stretch him, that she was going to have him do a character where he couldn’t use his hands. That opened up a whole new world, and the characters that he started creating in improv weren’t only based on his hands.
And there were a couple of kids who were really into what Kate was doing, who didn’t want anything to do with me. Eventually, I was able to teach a workshop where those kids were able to come over and were like, “Oh, okay, it’s just different.”
In order to do improv, you need to know theatre. I love what she’s done. She teaches a wide variety of genres and of theatre. I was just saying to the kids, “Guys, look at what you’ve done in the last four years.” They’ve done Sam Shepard. And Chorus Line is a completely different musical than Camelot. The competition piece they did last year was written in iambic pentameter and this year they did a British farce. “Look at all those different genres. Now you know those genres and you can use them in your improv.”
There’s a great respect on both sides for the work that we do and the differences. She approaches teaching in a much gentler way than I do and it’s great for the kids because it’s different. It doesn’t work for me and sometimes I wish it would. But it’s just different.
If you really want to know how we work together, it’s the kids you’d need to talk to. One of the great things that we share is that we put the power in the hands of the kids.