In the Off-Season: February

Finding a crowd in the dead of winter can be a pleasant surprise.

In August, Martha’s Vineyard is the center of the world. The president is here, and hardly a week passes without an essential Vineyard event to woo and wow day-trippers, Islanders, and everyone in between. The beaches (and parking lots) are past capacity, and the harbors are a forest of masts. One wonders how the Island stays afloat with all the people.

But in February, this place can feel like the hind end of nowhere. The summer crowds have fled, of course, but frankly so has everyone else who can afford it. Your plumber has taken his proceeds from your bathroom remodel and is spending a week with the family in Aruba; he saw your gardener in the Miami airport on her way to St. Thomas. But even three weeks in Costa Rica doesn’t quite fill the yawning gray void between Christmas and whenever the peepers decide to begin peeping. Even the best of us are stuck here in February sometimes, with no cocktail parties on manicured lawns, no madras outfits covering tanned skin, and seemingly no one with whom to commiserate. The smiling crowds at Ocean Park are replaced by flocks of hardy brants, the yachts in Menemsha with eiders.

That’s not to say the Island is without charm in the winter. There is the ever-present “stark beauty” of bare trees and wind-blasted dunes, and the simple privilege of parking wherever you want. But as a social species, we also crave interaction, excitement. A crowd. There are still a few thousand on The Rock in February, but where to find them when the calendar section of the Gazette is so sparse?

Some standing events draw a regular crowd – certain happy hours and dinner specials come to mind – and it’s certainly nice to walk into a cozy tavern, maybe one with a fireplace blazing, and be greeted by name by half the people there. That’s another pleasant aspect of February here: If you find a crowd, it’s a crowd of people who live here, people you know – or soon will meet. The web of connections that bind the Island community together is spun at least as much on cold nights in February as balmy evenings in August.

Maybe the biggest off-season crowd can be found en masse at the annual musical at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs. School kids are fortunate, if only in the sense that they get to see a large number of their compatriots on a daily basis throughout the off-season. But for the many adults on the Vineyard who are drawn to the winter musical, it’s as big a deal as Illumination Night, and all the more special since it’s shared only by the community of those (un)fortunate enough to be stuck here during the season of sideways sleet.

In 2010, a struggling community was the theme of Rent, a story about young artists and musicians in New York in the 1990s, most of whom have AIDS and many of whom are gay. This modern take on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème also addresses drug addiction, prostitution, and illegal housing; not exactly You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. But the students involved embraced all aspects of the production. Kate Murray, head of the drama department, says the Vineyard teens seemed to identify intensely with their characters.

Certainly a group of young actors will develop a feeling of camaraderie over three months of rehearsing two or three times a week, but the show worked to include the audience in that sense of community so essential to the story. Immediately upon entering the anteroom of the performance center, the audience was drawn into the story by cast members already in character as street-smart and homeless New Yorkers selling bottled water and other wares. Throughout the show, the cast wove through the audience, wandering the aisles, lounging against the walls, stretching out on the floor, and draping themselves over the stage stairs, often performing songs from those positions.

While summer is rife with plays and concerts and dance and poetry readings, in February it’s a rare treat to watch a transvestite named Angel in platform leather boots, zebra-print tights, a pink tutu, and black pageboy wig. Senior Taylor Rasmussen, who played Angel compellingly, might have stolen the show were the rest of the cast not as strong, the band so entertaining, and the set visually arresting. Among the highlights were riveting solos by senior Katie Mayhew as the female lead, a devilishly delightful “Over the Moon” song-and-dance number by senior Tessa Permar’s flirtatious Maureen, and a heartbreaking appeal in one of the final scenes by Angel’s boyfriend (junior Rykerr Maynard).

Every show brought the audience to its feet with standing ovations. It was that good. Good enough to forget for a couple of hours the wet winter chill of the Vineyard, and to be lost instead in a chilly, unheated, illegal warehouse apartment on the Lower East Side in the nineties.

Another February highlight, trivia night at the Wharf Pub in Edgartown, is more of a comforting weekly pastime that blooms in the dead of winter, when people take advantage of the chance to get out with a group of friends and show that they know who Ambrose Burnside was, or which noble gas has a name derived from the Greek word for stranger.*

Dan Cassidy, an Oak Bluffs police officer by trade, runs the trivia contest, and the format (from a Boston-based trivia company called Stump!) invites competition, but also conversation. Teams of up to six people get the length of a song to submit a written answer to each of the twenty-one weekly questions, allowing plenty of time for debate when needed, or friendly chatter when the answer is already clear. The atmosphere is cheery, with Dan at the mike usually dressed in a costume to complement the night’s musical theme, and the crowd cheering or groaning, depending on their answers. Dan’s mother, Pam, helps him tally the scores.

The crowd for trivia often fills the Wharf’s back room, and in February it’s jammed to overflowing, and Dan has to read the questions a second time for the teams in the front room. Dan notes that while the Wharf managers were initially dubious about hosting trivia night, he was not: “There’s very little to do here in the winter, so really I anticipated it being pretty busy – but not as busy as it’s been.”

Aside from the die-hards, one never knows who’ll show for trivia: co-workers, a guy you play hockey with, your vet (how could he not know what brand of pet food Morris the cat peddles?), and probably at least one person you should know but cannot place. Friendly rivalries develop and – like in academia – grow all the more fierce because the stakes are so low (a fifty-dollar gift certificate, which won’t cover your tab).

“The most competitive teams are a very tight-knit group; they come back and repeat each week,” Dan notes. “It’s a great time. The Wharf treats us great....I like how my mother is my assistant, because we get to have dinner before and then work together....That’s probably my favorite part about it.” Awww.

So trivia is a win-win for both the business and bored Vineyarders seeking fellowship. But even more, it’s an opportunity to be social, an appointment to have fun, with dinner and drinks on the side. Or maybe karaoke at Seasons in Oak Bluffs is your thing, or NFL football at Sharky’s in Edgartown. Or mah-jongg in Vineyard Haven, “Mindful Knitting” in Edgartown, or “Mother Goose on the Loose” at the West Tisbury Library. In August, the crowds are unavoidable. But in February, you take the crowds where you can get them. “No man is an island.”**

* Burnside was a Union General during the Civil War and the first president of the National Rifle Association; sideburns are named for him. Xenon (atomic number 54) is used in lighting and as an anesthetic. (Full disclosure: The team this writer plays on can kick your team’s trivia butt.)

** John Donne. From the same work (“Meditation XVII”) in which he wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The work is a religious reflection on how all people are connected.

The magazine’s former associate editor Linda Black contributed to this article.