Logan Settle, 8, and Damian Hudson, 23, had a bet. If Damian won, Logan would have to fix him a hot dog with mustard. If Logan won, Damian had to bring Logan a Golden Oreo cookie.
The two stepped into a pair of sacks and hopped off on the lawn of 215 Upper Main street in Edgartown. Damian won, and was promptly challenged to a rematch. He agreed but first he needed to finish the hot dog.
The hotdog/Oreo cookie bet was a respite from the six hours of rehearsal Damian had put in earlier in the day with the cast, writers and director of The Total Bent, an off-Broadway musical penned by Tony-award winning duo Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Such is life at the Vineyard Arts Project in Edgartown.
Founded six years ago by Ashley Melone, 28, the Vineyard Arts Project was conceived as an incubating space for new works of theatre and dance, where actors, dancers, directors and writers could come to focus on project development. Ashley and her sister Brittany Melone, 25, work throughout the year looking for up-and-coming groups to invite to the Vineyard for up to three weeks of residency. There is ample time at the residencies for brainstorming and rehearsing as well as family-style dinners, walks through downtown Edgartown and sack races.
“We want [people] to feel at home while they’re here, rather than at a workspace,” Ashley said.
The key, Brittany said, is providing the highest level of comfort.
“You really can’t put a price on it,” said Mandy Hackett, artistic director of The Public Theatre in New York city. The Public, like the Vineyard Arts Project, focuses on developing new works. “You get the artist out of the city and busy city life so you can dig into issues on the projects,” Mrs. Hackett said. “Our goals mesh so much with what [they] are doing.”
“Sometimes a pressure cooker is good,” Vin Knight, a member of The Public’s Elevator Repair Service Company, said during a barbeque on Tuesday evening. Elevator Repair Service is working on Arguendo, a play based on the 1991 Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre, while in residency.
“Sometimes a slow cooker is good,” director John Collins chimed in. He had been on the Island for just a day, but said he was already relaxed enough that even the 75 unanswered emails in his inbox didn’t phase him. The group had done residencies in other bucolic settings, such as Dartmouth College, but “this is special, even among those,” Mr. Collins said, adding that it was nice to have an individual bedroom rather than staying in a dorm.
The house at 215 Upper Main street, along with a house on Curtis Lane, was built in 2004 by the Melone family for use as a ballet school. The ballet programs ended in 2008, and Ashley seized on a chance to turn a class project she had worked on in graduate school into a reality. The houses had been designed with artists in mind, combining all the features of a Vineyard summer home complete with brightly colored bedspreads and rugs, spacious kitchens, in-house washers and dryers and those of a professional performing arts space with large rehearsal studios and a practice piano.
At the barbeque, Mrs. Hackett said her young daughter had called the Vineyard Arts Project residency a “work-cation.”
“We’ve gotten more done over two days than over a six-month period,” she said. With four different projects in residency, creative energy was “cross-pollinating” with every conversation in the kitchen and every run-in in the hallway.
“Today, progressively, has only gotten better and better and better,” Nastaran Ahmadi said, while seated in a lounge chair next to fellow playwright Tommy Smith and director Teddy Bergman. The three are part of the annual New Writers, New Plays festival, and had arrived via the Patriot boat after their original flight from New York was canceled.
Together with co-founder Brooke Hardman, Ashley and Brittany are very hands-on in choosing projects for New Writers, New Plays. The process begins by reading dozens of scripts, and ends with the often complicated task of bringing the artists to the Vineyard. The job is part curator, part travel agent, but the sisters believe in the cause.
“It’s really important to reach artists that may not be getting produced other places yet and take a risk on them,” Ashley said. “Like cultivating a little seedling at first.”
One of the early plays brought to New Writers, New Plays was Disgraced, by first-time playwright Ayad Akhtar. It had its first reading at the Vineyard Arts Project four years ago, and won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama this year.
Another early script chosen for the festival was Witness Uganda, which won the Richard Rodgers award in 2012 and will enter full production at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater next year. Tony-winning director Diane Paulus will direct.
“The first act [was written] on our porch, we were all on the piano outside,” Ashley recalled.
“The Vineyard Arts Project every year is gaining more and more of a reputation, which is really exciting,” she said. “Because it started out just as an idea and now it’s alive.”
On Saturday, June 29, the Vineyard Arts Project presents a workshop of The Total Bent and Arguendo at 7 p.m.