The Vineyard Playhouse hopes to raise $1 million this summer in the first phase of a $5 million capital campaign that encompasses the renovation, restoration and expansion of the historic theatre on Church street in Vineyard Haven.
The restoration already has begun. With Community Preservation Act funds and private donations, the playhouse has installed new wood clapboard siding and windows on three sides of the building, and a new fire-safety sprinkler system.
“We have raised probably close to $400,000, which isn’t much toward our goal but it’s something,” said artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo. “And because we’re so good at doing a lot with a little, look what we’ve done! Look what we have. And we still have money in the bank.”
The capital campaign director is Jessica L. Andrews, a resident of the Island since childhood. Ms. Andrews’s extensive theatre management résumé includes four years as the director of the theatre department of the National Endowment for the Arts and 15 seasons as the executive director at the Arizona Theater Company, where she spearheaded multiple capital campaigns. She retired from her Tuscon position in 2009, but was called back la st year as interim managing director. She has a house in Oak Bluffs with her husband, Timothy Toothman.
Ms. Bruder Munafo and the president of the playhouse board, Gerry Yukevich, a skilled actor and an Island doctor, have started the fund-raising and restoration with plenty of energy. The playhouse campaign’s ultimate goal of $5 million would go toward building an addition to the existing structure, housing for actors somewhere in Vineyard Haven and the acquisition of a scene shop/rehearsal hall somewhere on the Island, as well as establishing a permanent cash reserve, with funds to stabilize the financial operation and maintain the playhouse.
While the proposed scene shop/rehearsal hall and actor housing could exist in a separate town from the playhouse, Ms. Bruder Munafo said, “It’d be great if we could find a spot that was near the theatre. It’d be great if we had a campus, you know? That would be the ultimate.”
But for this summer, the fund-raising goals are focused on the addition. The board of directors and staff are planning a fund-raiser for July 31.
The plan for the new building includes re-envisioning the existing structure. Some of the additions and changes include: new office space, a small, functional kitchen, new upstairs dressing rooms, new upstairs bathrooms, two staircases, a new elevator, a new stage facing the opposite direction from its current orientation, a smaller, more accessible seating arrangement, new lighting, a new air-conditioning system throughout the building, and the overall improvement of the building as a public theatre and gathering place.
The renovation of ailing buildings is a familiar cause on the Vineyard. In recent years, there have two major building projects with ambitious capital campaigns of their own: the new hospital and the YMCA. The playhouse capital campaign very consciously began after those had finished to avoid overstressing the community’s generosity, said Ms. Bruder Munafo.
“I have no idea whether some of the same people that gave to either of those campaigns are going to give to the playhouse or not,” she said, adding:
“The whole playhouse campaign could be done with the generosity of, you know, anywhere from a thousand to three people depending on who they are and who might step forward, who might be a real patron of the arts.”
Ms. Bruder Munafo noted that donations to the nonprofit playhouse are tax-deductible, and that the entire board of directors has given money and support to the capital campaign.
The architectural plans and the building contractor are ready, Ms. Bruder Munafo said. They hope to raise the money this summer so the addition and restoration can happen over the coming winter.
The playhouse’s history always has been seasoned with monetary concerns.
“We’re good at surviving but, you know, it’d be nice to not be in that mode all the time. It’d be really good,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo.
“We thrive and survive at the same time, but there’s never been a time where we’re just like ‘Wow, we’ve got plenty of money. We don’t even have to think about that.’ But that’d be nice. That’d be nice, some day,’” she said.
In 1982 Eileen Wilson founded the playhouse with Isabella McKamy. The pair bought the building with their personal funds, although a few years later the partnership foundered and the playhouse suddenly found itself facing foreclosure and a sale of the building at public auction. A fund-raising campaign to help pay down a $48,000 mortgage on the building (purchased from the Masons for $80,000) had fallen far short but was saved at the eleventh hour. In 1993 the building was once again put on the market, so a group of people, including Ms. Bruder Munafo, embarked on a capital campaign to purchase it. The campaign succeeded, and so the Vineyard Playhouse Company became the owner of the building.
In subsequent years it came to light that the building needed restorations in different ways, and the question of staying or moving somewhere else was again on the table.
“We made a decision a long time ago, the board of directors at the time, we decided ‘Let’s just do the best small theatre that we can in this historic building downtown, instead of selling this building, which we could have for a nice price actually, and building some metal shed up at the airport . . . There’s something about intimate theatre that is so special and it is [one reason why] we decided, as a board of directors, to renovate this place and stay right here,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo.
Part of the charm of the space is its intimate appearance; from the red-brown floorboards in the lobby to the 19th century exterior to the smallish black box theatre upstairs.
“I don’t want to lose any of the spirit of the place,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo. “There’s a feeling in the building that’s really special and I never want to lose that by any of this renovation.”
Over the years it has seen numerous renovations and alterations. It was built in 1833 as a one-story Methodist meetinghouse. The town of Tisbury purchased it in 1855 and added a second level. Then the Free Masons bought the building and did major internal renovations in 1895. They stayed the owners until Ms. Wilson and Ms. McKamy bought it in the 1980s. And now it belongs to the playhouse to renovate for future generations.
“We’re really looking beyond the Vineyard Playhouse when we are talking about renovating the building. I mean, it would be my greatest joy to see the Vineyard Playhouse operating in this building for year and years and years and years, but if that weren’t to happen, the idea of restoring the building is that it would be available for community use for another incarnation,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo.
She added: “I keep thinking, okay, it’s been here for 200 years. Now we’re just getting it ready for the next 200 years.”