A New Performance Space

The mostly volunteer Pit Stop Workshop Company has turned a former car repair shop into a lively musical and artistic co-op.

The outside is misleading in the best of ways. A jumble of roofs and walls of different heights tacked onto one another, the building stands in a sandy lot looking like a hybrid of a house and an auto shop. A black and gold sign on the front reads “Pit Stop Tire Shop,” and a cursory glance would leave a passerby thinking this was an adequate description of what lies within. But those who follow the arrow to the back door entrance, past a dubiously seaworthy boat and a collection of potted plants perched on lawn chairs, will find something quite different.

The door opens into a high-ceilinged room whose walls are just growing accustomed to holding art. In the next room, a stage commands the space and soundboards line the back wall. This is the Pit Stop Workshop Company, the performance venue, art gallery, and creative haven that opened this past winter in the Oak Bluffs Arts District.

It’s Open Mic Monday on the night I walk in, interested to check out this spot that’s been generating a lot of Island buzz. I’m early, but there are already a few precocious performers wandering around. A couple of them stick out a hand, eager to meet and greet; others avoid eye contact and hang in the back, appearing focused rather than antisocial. Don Muckerheide, the building’s owner and Pit Stop father figure, if you will, is bustling, but as more people arrive he settles down in the front room at a small table with a glass jar for admissions and a clipboard for mailing list sign-ups.

Inside the music room, rows of white chairs cover almost every inch of floor space. Don explains the space is zoned for eighty-five people, “but we only have eighty chairs, so it’s easy to keep count.” The floor-level stage is delineated by glowing string lights, and professional theater lights (donated by the Island’s lighting and sound master Jim Novak) are pointed down at the gaggle of microphones, amplifiers, and instruments (I spy three guitars, a piano, and an organ). A red velvet curtain hanging behind the stage calls to mind a classic theater, yet this curtain covers a window instead of partitioning the performers from their audience – fitting for an open mic, where the fourth wall breaks down as audience members perform, and input from the peanut gallery is part of the fun.

The stage becomes a revolving door. A seasoned musician starts out, switching seamlessly between wooden flute and guitar (with hands-free harmonica), even accompanying himself with a prerecorded piano track (“because I can’t play both at the same time,” he jokes; “Why not?” someone yells out in reply). A sweet-voiced girl with an acoustic guitar and an entourage of supporters strums out a song she wrote herself; “No more covers,” she encourages herself, laughing. A man who admits it’s his first time steps up and with mostly closed eyes delivers two spoken-word pieces in a gravelly voice that smacks of Dylan. “There’s plenty of artists but only one Louvre,” one lyric reminds his listeners. And in case anyone was worried there would be too much acoustic, a young man with a wildly angular black and green electric bass steps up to deliver two death-metal-style pieces that he notes are part of his albums he’s uploaded to YouTube.

The banter between performers, host Anthony Esposito of Edgartown, and the audience is constant. “Sorry that was stuttery,” one young man apologizes after a heartfelt half-rapped, half-spoken poetic account of a breakup. “No, it made it more emotional!” someone says encouragingly.

It’s that kind of interaction that made Anthony, who is a musician himself, so eager to start an open mic after the Pit Stop opened. “It gets people to come out and experiment with what they’re working on. And things end up happening here that are on the cutting edge of what’s going on musically on the Island, because it’s a place to test the waters.”

That might not be a bad encapsulation of the philosophy of the Pit Stop in general. As a concert venue, it provides a place to showcase new work, and as a workshop it’s a space for artists to experiment and come up with a new sound or vision. It’s a Vineyard experiment that echoes the 1970s Artworkers Guild in Vineyard Haven. Then, a group of artists led by musician James Taylor built a space for artistic work and performance in the former Nobnocket Garage. In subsequent years, venues such as the Wintertide Coffeehouse and Che’s Lounge in Vineyard Haven, both now closed, have also served as creative community gathering spots.

Two driving forces behind the Pit Stop are musicians Willy Mason and Nina Violet, both Island kids (of West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, respectively) who went on to make names for themselves in the music world (both artists have albums available on iTunes and have toured widely). Nina, who is Don’s daughter, recorded her most recent album, We’ll Be Alright, in the space, after her father’s Pit Stop auto repair shop closed in 2001 and a subsequent remodeling as an antiques store fizzled. Hers was one of a dozen albums produced there by well-known recording engineer Matthew Cullen, who hails from the UK and has worked with names as big as Yoko Ono and the Flaming Lips.

Music had been invading the space little by little ever since the summers of 2005 and 2006 when the doors were opened for some notable jazz performances, with a lineup that included (then pre-Grammy) bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. But the doors closed again as Don planned to put a three-story building of affordable housing units on the lot. (Approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the project wasn’t built due to lack of funding.) But the music wouldn’t stay out. Bands used the space to practice or record, and Don let them have it for free. “We had some really good times and I got to hear some great music being created,” he says. “In the winter they would occasionally throw me a hundred to keep gas in the tank for heat.”

And it was from this frozen winter ground that the Pit Stop sprouted up quite organically last December. Willy, who has toured with names like My Morning Jacket and Roseanne Cash (the guy even has a Wikipedia page), perhaps best crystallizes the scenario. “[It] started with Nina: When she finished her album that she recorded here, she decided to throw a party to announce its release and to thank everybody that helped with it and have a good time. And the party went so well that we decided to do it again the next week,” he pauses for effect, “and then we did it again the next week, and we’ve had music every weekend since.”

The Pit Stop continued to grow, as a registered nonprofit organization with music performances about four times a week, as well as open mics, visual art, films, theater, classes, and workshops. “We’re trying to keep the spread open, trying to get as much variety as we can,” Willy says, “especially stuff that doesn’t have another place on the Island.” In its first months alone, the stage hosted not just concerts with Island, national, and international artists, but also productions of Shakespeare, original films by local filmmakers (including Willy’s brother, Sam, who’s now based in Brooklyn), and – why not? – deejayed dance nights, with themes like Dancercize (1980s workout gear recommended) and the beachy Funk.Surf.Party.

Despite its popularity, the Pit Stop struggles with the same current that often flows against artistic projects: how to fund them and make them sustainable. “Everybody is a volunteer at this point,” Willy says. “We’re trying to figure out a way to make it float....Slowly a structure is developing itself and people are taking roles. Lots of people have come forward to help, with specific skills. Usually they’ll come to a concert and really like the place and be inspired by it and offer their services – from skills like carpentry to booking bands to doing graphic design and promotion for the place, to writing up press releases and mailers, to taking money at the door, just all the little things. There’s a lot of little jobs to keep a place like this going and as needs come up, then they’re met by different people.”

Don speaks bluntly of the difficulties of sustaining this kind of business. “It’s a social experiment,” he says. “The reason that things like this don’t exist is because they don’t pay – you can’t pay for the property with what comes through the door unless you’re pricing high for shows....So we’ll see if the community backs it up by buying memberships.”

Memberships are the functioning principle of the Pit Stop. The co-operative idea is simple enough: A $100 annual membership ($150 for families) gets you free or half-price access to shows and workshops, which are open to the public at a higher price.

The Vineyard community will be watching to see how this creative experiment fares, as a new artistic-minded generation comes together to build a public space, amplifying the Island’s longstanding musical and artistic undercurrents. With We’ll Be Alright as the album that christened its newly opened doors, the signs are auspicious.