After much back and forth texting, I finally arranged to meet my friend Chris for coffee. To discuss his impending acting stint at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vineyard. I had suggested getting together since I’d spent two summers working there and thought I might offer him some hints and tips in dealing with that weird, magical, insular enclave. But also I guess to reawaken for myself (sense memory!) the feeling of being there, as currently the plans I’d been making for a quick weekend trip to the island this August were steadily imploding. (Beware of Facebook friends bearing invitations.)
The last time I’d set foot there was maybe six years ago? It was over the 4th of July weekend, and I stayed in a tent on someone’s property with my friend Julia. We went to the local parade, a small town extravaganza that was so Norman Rockwell-ian in its earnest Americana, with floats and toddlers waving miniature flags and sparklers, that it vaulted you past cheesiness right into rah-rah sentimentality. We lay on the beach and watched fireworks that evening exploding so close to our heads that they might as well have been LSD hallucinations projected on the movie screen of our eyelids.
The summer of ’99 I interned at the Vineyard Playhouse. My BFA degree required the completion of an internship before graduation, and in the wisdom of a faculty who’d spent too much time in the hallowed halls of academia and very little time negotiating the vagaries of the real world, the requirements placed on the internship were relatively unmeetable. It was only the second year of the program, with none of the kinks worked out. So I, as the rest of my classmates, eager to move on from college life, fudged certain details. Like, for instance, to qualify our internships needed to pay and provide housing. Um, ha, what? Nice dream, theater dean. Given our department’s close ties to Disney, it was assumed most would be parceled out to that terrible entertainment factory, wherein we’d earn a wage while sweating profusely under the Florida sun, trading our souls for a three credit course requirement. Luckily, my aforementioned friend Julia had completed her internship at the Playhouse the year prior, and with her recommendation I secured a position there. I didn’t even know where the hell the island was. But it was far away. Adventure! I was paid, too. A small stipend. But! I had to secure my own housing, expensive on an island that is a tourist destination for the affluent and famous, and of course I had to manage to feed myself while there for three months. Somehow I made it work. I made it work so well that the following summer I went back to work as the assistant to the Artistic Director/intern coordinator.
So then, this is where two summer’s worth of recollections and impressions mix and loop and superimpose themselves, though I’ve tried to separate them into salient moments.
I first arrived, having ferried my battered Honda Civic over, to find the playhouse in what I’d come to later know as its usual state of controlled chaos. Unfortunately, the room I’d rented — the location secured after negotiating thickets of red tape with the Chamber of Commerce, which was in the three bedroom home of (what I first perceived to be) a dour, dog-owning lesbian, and that was also to be occupied by a fellow Playhouse intern, a buxom, bi-curious girl and recent Boston University graduate – was not ready to be occupied. I ended up spending the first night on the box office manager’s couch, an island native with ties to the local video store and a sweet art car. That night I smoked some of the most mind-altering weed I’d ever sucked into my lungs, and he introduced me via bootleg copy to Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. For that I’m eternally grateful. That was followed by a stint at the youth hostel on the Vineyard before I could move into my quarters.
Being a small island, easily traversable with my car, I learned the lay of the land by trial and error: the difference between up island and down island, where to get the best coffee (Mocha Mott’s),what touristy sights to take in (the cottages and historic carousel in Oak Bluffs), the clay cliffs and nude beach at Gay Head, er Aquinnah. It was more important though to learn the signifiers I’d need to adapt, the island lore, the native secrets, the mores of that place. Tourists on rented scooters were to be reviled. Where best to see the constellations while smoking a spliff. Where to skinny dip at night, where to see phosphorescence in the water.
About the residents. There was one competing theater, though it was not much of a competition, run by a woman named Lee, whose claim to fame was a bit role Jaws. Then there was the playhouse personnel, including the master carpenter at that time, a sun-burnt, pot-bellied stoner whose eyes lingered on the young ladies in between his lectures on “attention to detail.” (Measure twice, cut once!)
Then also the various celebrities who had summer residences there, the ones referred to by first names: Carly, Ted & Mary, etc. I gathered with a crowd to watch the Clintons buying ice cream cones, their secret service detail wilting in the hot sun. Once I happened upon Uma Thurman, dressed in sweatpants, buying cheerios and vodka at the package store. I performed on Saturday mornings with the Fabulists!, doing improvised fairy tales for children. David Mamet and his wife Rebecca Pidgeon were at one show. Of all the times to not be able to work blue.
It was not all star-gazing and hobnobbery, though. I was rehearsing for the amphitheater production of The Comedy of Errors when news came of JFK Jr.’s fatal crash. It was eery to have a specific, visual knowledge of the very beaches where the news reports said bits of the aircraft that had washed ashore.
Of the many firsts that summer, I learned I to love good seafood, eating steamers at a picnic table as I watched the boats back up to the dock and expel their bounty.
I ended up catching “island fever” by August, that dreadful constraining condition that, the moment I had two days off in a row, sent me fleeing to Boston just so I could be anonymous for a time. I started to think of the Vineyard as the Island of Misfit Toys. It was not hard to forget that I was there not as one of the idle rich but as a laborer. An itinerant outsider! Still through the various circles sometimes I became privy to the gossip and backbiting of the year-rounders, the ones who were artists but also had to drive taxis or sell overpriced trinkets at boutiques to make ends meet. (Unlike, say, the hippie chicks from Boston who came to work on organic farms harvesting vegetables and neglecting to shave their legs. I am sure they were not so concerned about which board member was cheating on his wife and with whom!) So I got absorbed for a time in that community. Little did I know how well I fit. (In this analogy maybe I’m Hermey the Misfit Elf?)
The morning I left the island, internship concluded, I was green from too many tequila shots the night prior. I played a live cut of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” over and over, which I found both soothing an apropos, fighting an urge to vomit with every shift and list of the ferry. I had become much transformed: a free ballin’, rarely shod hippie, my now shoulder-length hair sun-streaked, my skin burnished.
And so the second tour, which had me shuttling between various housing arrangements, this time paid for by the theater, including a stint living in the yoga studio of a recent divorcé. The studio was separate from the main house and had an outdoor shower (a plus), but my landlord often wanted me to sit with him in his kitchen and talk because he was lonely (a minus).
I continued on past the summer professional season and into the fall that year because I desperately wanted to play Ben Gant in Look Homeward, Angel. I very much was that part: fey, tubercular-looking, a native North Carolinian to boot — I am not above type-casting myself. (One audience member told me I looked like I came from North Carolina. I never knew if that was compliment or a comment on my genetic stock.)
And then I left. I’d taken a sublet in New York because it was available, because it was the next right thing. It was intimated I could have stayed on, but…
See, I went to a state college a mere 30 minutes from the house I grew up in. The Vineyard was great the first summer, and at times better the second. The artistic director became almost a surrogate mother, at the very least a favored aunt, and I had become her confidante and sounding board and armchair shrink and consigliere. (Once we played hooky to attend the county fair, eating sweets and riding the Ferris wheel, avoiding the constant demands of the job for a few short hours.) But when my feelings of independence intersected with the feeling that I was becoming indispensable, I chose to flee. (That has become something of a pattern in my life I’ve found! I’d discuss that impulse with my therapist, if I had one.)
I imposed my own exile from what some might deem a paradise. But sometimes paradise is a prison! All I really did was trade one island for another. The Vineyard was, after all, just a place. Though now it’s a place I associate with the beginnings of adulthood — ironic, really, as I spent my early twenties in a state of arrested adolescence – and the fodder clearly for bloated remembrances like these (and this is a Reader’s Digest version of what I could recall).
There were other things I meant to impart to Chris before he left. To beware of skunks. To try and find local characters, like Johnny Seaview — a man full of salty, of-putting anecdotes. I can’t live vicariously. Much as I want to! Though I do hope Chris and I can have coffee when he returns. I’d like to know what’s changed, and all that hasn’t.