The Island’s oldest players, the self-described vagabonds of Island Theatre Workshop, have found a home. After 41 years on an endless Vineyard shuffle, the troupe aims to set up shop in the cozy building on Music street in West Tisbury that housed the town’s library for 100 years.
“It is not a performance space, but this will allow us to really gather all our different workshops and classes, and allow us to expand those, especially to really open up our year-round programs,” said Stephanie Burke, the president of ITW’s board of directors. The community arts group has offered programs in acting, directing, playwrighting, technical theatre, movement and musical theatre in the decades since it began under the late Mary Payne and continued for many years under Lee Fierro.
As for a performance space, Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns the old library, points to another of the trust’s nearby buildings, the Grange Hall, which boasts a charming upstairs theatre.
“They might even become our house troupe,” he said, adding it would of course still be available to other groups.
“They will have a stable base and a sweet stage [in the Grange] so it dovetails nicely,” Mr. Scott said.
ITW has performed, Ms. Burke believes, in every Island performance venue except the regional high school’s performing arts center, not to mention on the Cape, in Boston and New Jersey.
“We’re a pretty flexible bunch,” she said. “But, for instance, the Katharine Cornell, which is such a lovely little theatre, is so scheduled these days — there’s film festivals and great music, and then it can only be used at night because of the town hall downstairs — which means it can be pretty hard if you want to have a run of a couple of weeks, or even weekends, for a show.”
ITW’s popular theatre arts program for kids, Children’s Theatre, will continue at the Sailing Camp Park in Oak Bluffs in the summer. But Brian Ditchfield, who took direction of the long-running program this year, expects to be holding classes in the West Tisbury space by mid-March, Ms. Burke said. He will resume the Apprentice Players, a teen acting workshop that thrived for many decades.
All the plans are predicated on approval from the West Tisbury planning board, which will discuss the ITW plan next month. But both ITW and the trust describe the two-year renewable lease as a good fit.
The old library also has been a temporary town hall annex, police headquarters and a reading room, but it originally served as part of the Dukes County Academy. So when the Preservation Trust, which a decade ago took over the derelict building and renovated it, began this fall searching for a tenant in line with its original purpose, the ad called for a nonprofit organization that would use the building for educational or cultural purposes.
“ITW is right on the money as a good use of the building,” Mr. Scott said. “The original function was about youth, enriching and educating them, and this will continue as something close to that original purpose. That’s great preservation,” he added.
“Another aspect is, it enriches the historic center of West Tisbury,” he said, recalling when Alley’s General Store and its post office were set for closure, before the trust bought and began operating them. “There’s a certain fragility,” that has been addressed also by the renovation of the town hall, playground, the new library and the senior center, he said. “This is a small but meaningful piece of the puzzle.”
Children from all Island towns will be able to attend after-school classes, Ms. Burke said, with the convenience of the VTA bus stop at Alley’s; the space is right behind the renovated town hall, where busses turn around. The same convenience will also be there for adults attending ITW workshops during the day or in the evenings.
The campus-like feel of the old West Tisbury center, as ITW’s proposal points out, “creates a little mecca for learning and the arts.” Ms. Burke notes the farmers’ markets, artisans fairs, activities at the senior center and Congregational church. “The center of West Tisbury is just blossoming,” she said.
Kaf Warman, the Carnegie Mellon professor and part-time Island resident who has been with ITW for 22 years, recently took over as artistic director from Lee Fierro. Ms. Warman selects theatre majors from the renowned performance school to come to the Island to develop teaching, writing and directing skills as counselors in the children’s summer theatre program. They are hosted by Island families, one of many examples of the troupe making connections with other groups on and off the Island. ITW intends to use the first floor space for classes, workshops, rehearsals, readings and small gatherings. On the loft-like second floor, they hope to store their costumes, which are now crammed into an old barn in Vineyard Haven, accessible through a drop-down ladder. “In the old library, there is room upstairs for a sewing machine and space to try things on . . . and it is heated!” said Ms. Burke excitedly, noting they often lend out costumes to schools and other theatre groups.
The trust had several nonprofits apply for the below-market rate deal on the old library; after a committee selected ITW, the theatre group approved the lease last Wednesday. “It’s a big step,” Ms. Burke said. “We are supporting ourselves based on our production and our Children’s Theatre program; we don’t get any grant money, but we’re managing to be in the black.” ITW may have to hold its first summer fund-raiser, joining an already crowded field, and it will probably apply for grants in the future.
“Everybody hopes,” Mr. Scott said, “this not only works but is a springboard to growth and future success for the organization.”