Piano notes ring out and fill the empty main room of the Outerland nightclub. Rather than enjoying the sunny Monday afternoon, the five-member cast of Ruthless!, an Off-Broadway musical that debuted here Thursday evening, is in full costume. They are rehearsing as they have been since May 22 - every day from noon to four, with one day off. Laura Mixon, who plays Tina, an eight-year-old Broadway baby trying to make it, belts out one of her many numbers, flashing a dazzling smile and tap dancing, all at once. "I was born to amuse," she sings, "from the tip of my nose to the tap of my shoes."
The line could easily apply to director Kaf Warman, who sits at a small desk by the foot of the stage. As the show's first run-through progresses, Ms. Warman alternately lets out chuckles, makes notes and sighs. She first came to the Island 19 years ago and has been an integral member of the arts community ever since, teaching workshops, directing shows and serving as the associate director of Island Theatre Workshop.
In 1984, Ms. Warman lived in Los Angeles, Calif., where she had taught art at schools ranging from the California Institute of the Arts, University of California at Irvine, and the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre. At the time she was a member of an artist group that had recently lost its funding. One of the women in the group had a house on the Vineyard and the troupe, under the name Solstice, made the cross-country trek to hold a summer workshop. It was at that first workshop that Ms. Warman met Lee Fierro, the associate artistic director at Island Theatre Workshop, Inc., the Vineyard's oldest theatre company. Through her, Ms. Warman met Mary Payne, artistic director of Island Theatre Workshop.
In 1987, Ms. Payne decided to return to school to obtain her master's degree in social work. She wanted Ms. Warman and Ms. Fierro to share the associate artistic director position. Ms. Warman agreed to come for the year.
And what a year it was. She directed six shows and found what she describes as an amazing artistic community. "People with an artistic inclination in theatre, painting, music, writing who were able to find day jobs and affordable housing and pursue the arts at nights and on the weekends," she says.
One year turned into nine, until Ms. Warman felt that she could no longer make a decent living on the Island. She accepted a job at the University of Maine at Orono and then finally at Carnegie Mellon, where she teaches movement and improvisation. Although she has been teaching there for 10 years, Ms. Warman still thinks of the Vineyard as home.
Each fall she returns to Pittsburgh, Pa., and rents a new room. Each summer she returns to the Island to direct, hold dozens of clown, mask, and Comedia Dell'Arte workshops, and resume her seasonal position at Island Theatre Workshop.
She has theatre in her blood, and says she never has time away from work. "When you find your work is what you love," she says, "it is great because work becomes your pleasure." When not teaching or directing, she voraciously reads scripts looking for her next project. Four years ago she came across the script for Ruthless! and fell in love. "I love old movies and got all the references," she says. "And it's smart funny, not lowbrow humor."
But she did not envision the show in a traditional setting like the Katharine Cornell Theatre. She wanted to do an evening of nightclub dinner theatre where the audience could sit at tables and eat, drink and laugh.
After a few attempts elsewhere, she contacted Outerland this winter. Outerland signed on and Ms. Warman began making calls. She called Taffy McCarthy and asked her to play Judy Denmark, Tina's mother. This will be the 16th show together for the two women. She called Jamie Alley, owner of Island Entertainment, and Ms. McCarthy's daughter Chelsea, who had been living in New York city, and asked them to join the cast. Both have acted with Ms. Warman many times before. She also called Shelley Brown, whom she had never worked with, but had seen in Island Theatre Workshop productions. Finally, as she does every summer, she asked a student of hers at Carnegie Mellon, Ms. Mixon, to spend the summer on the Vineyard and play the part of Tina.
"We don't have a huge pool of actors here. It's a very small Island," Ms. Warman says. For that reason, she frequently makes personal calls, describing the group of actors that she works with as a repertory company of sorts.
When she arrived on the Island at the beginning of the summer, Ms. Warman held open auditions for the last role. Melissa Grassia, a newcomer to Vineyard theatre, filled the spot. Ruthless! has a small cast, an intentional choice by Ms. Warman, because the artistic community she fell in love with 19 years ago with has dwindled over time. "Now, this isn't a place that [they] want to come," she says. "It's sad that this population isn't here anymore. And they can't be replaced."
Chelsea McCarthy also sees the change and welcomes the diversity that Ms. Warman brings to the Island art scene. "For the last 10 to 15 years, the Island's artist community has scattered," says Ms. McCarthy, who grew up on the Island. "It's nice that people like Kaf are here still making art available. As an actor, it's nice to have options."
The audience has changed too; Ms. Warman speaks warmly of the crowd that used to support Vineyard arts in her first decade of Island life. "You could go to different shows and see the same crowd," she says wistfully.
Today, she says, the core of the old crowd is there, but they could not fill an audience. On Thursday night, when the show opens, she expects to see them there but hopes that a new, younger audience will come as well to discover Island theatre. She also hopes to see weekenders and, because of the early curtain time - 7 p.m. - an older crowd as well.
"I try to bring things in that people would have to travel to see," she says. "This is valuable for any small community."
Over the years, this has included 36 plays, mostly contemporary American drama. "With an edge," Ms. Warman says. One of her recent shows, How I Learned to Drive, focused on incest. After one of the performances, Ms. Warman invited psychologists to have a talk back with the audience, something she thinks is beneficial to the community.
In an age of Internet and Netflix, Ms. Warman worries that regional theatre may wither out. "Live theatre is an experience that cannot be duplicated," she says. "Those of us who love it are responsible for keeping it going."
And keep it going she does. As the cast rehearses one of the final scenes on Monday afternoon, Ms. Warman looks on, taking notes. Mr. Alley sings a melodramatic solo and she begins to chortle. Her laughter begins to fill the room and Mr. Alley falters. "Get used to it," Ms. Warman calls out to him. "People are going to be howling!"
"The most rewarding part of what I do is when the audience loves it, when the response comes in," Ms. Warman says. "The night I hear those waves of laughter and see the actors surfing them. I can't wait for that."
Ruthless! runs from June 15 through June 18 at Outerland. Shows start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20.