Docu-soaping Martha


Seen near Five Corners, ca. 1997

This letter of mine was published in the Martha’s Vineyard Times for March 9, 2009. The paper’s previous two issues had noted that a “docu-soap” called The Vineyard was slated to be filmed on, you guessed it, Martha’s Vineyard. Four years later it seems that the docu-soap is finally going to happen. There’s a story about it in the online M.V. Times, posted yesterday. My four-year-old letter is still apropos.

The Vineyard is coming to the Vineyard. It’s true: I read it in the Martha’s Vineyard Times. The Vineyard, according to its executive producer, Dave Broome of 25/7 Productions, is a “soft-scripted docu-soap.” (I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds meaningful.) Broome says he’s big on authenticity. “It’s really critical to do this very genuine and very authentic,” he says. He wants people to watch the show and say, “That’s exactly what life is like on the Vineyard in the summertime.”

Having lived through quite a few Vineyard summers, I can’t begin to tell you “exactly what life is like on the Vineyard in the summertime,” but that’s OK. 25/7 Productions, which is based in L.A., is going to set me straight. Summer on the genuine, authentic Vineyard, it seems, is about recent college graduates. Some of them come here to work; others don’t have to work and just want to have fun. Summer on the Vineyard is about the “interaction” (Broome’s word) between twenty-somethings of the upper class and twenty-somethings of the upper middle.

Although these twenty-somethings will be marooned on an island, you know this isn’t anything like Survivor because this island isn’t deserted. According to 25/7 Productions’ website [NB: This site is now defunct], Martha’s Vineyard is “inhabited by high-profile residents, movie stars, politicians, writers and artists.” This is the Vineyard that those high-profile types, including L.A. production companies and New York publishers, know best, the one that winks into existence around Memorial Day and winks out by the middle of October. The stories they tell are the ones they know: the ones about college-educated summer hires and high-profile residents. The rest of us, the low-profile year-rounders, are the stage crew, indispensable for sure, but nearly invisible. The lucky (and photogenic) among us might get a walk-on part, but we don’t get to write the script.

And that’s what bugs me. The voices of year-round working people are rarely heard on the other side of Vineyard Sound, and when they are, they’re cut-and-pasted into “soft-scripted docu-soaps” and other stories dreamed up by the well-connected, the journalists, the producers, the novelists and academics from somewhere else. True, the complex vitality of the year-round Vineyard can be heard and seen in, for instance, the stories of Susan Klein; the mystery novels of Cynthia Riggs and the late Phil Craig; the story songs of Dillon Bustin; and the nonfiction of Jill Nelson (Finding Martha’s Vineyard), Nora Ellen Groce (Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language), and the late Dr. Milton Mazer (People and Predicaments).Their works are all informed by a deep knowledge of the place, its past as well as its present. They show us new facets of Vineyard life even as they convey something about us to the wider world. But will their combined audiences ever add up to more than a fraction of those who will see The Vineyard and as a result think they know something about the Vineyard? I doubt it.

What happens when outsiders get to tell other outsiders what the Vineyard is really about? When their version trumps our versions over and over? Outsiders get a lot of distorted if not totally bogus information about Martha’s Vineyard, but that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is that we who live here and actually know something about the place start to think that our stories aren’t worth hearing, or even worth telling. “The universe is made of stories / not of atoms,” wrote the poet Muriel Rukeyser. So is Martha’s Vineyard. If we don’t tell those stories, the place becomes less visible, not only to outsiders but to ourselves. Stories connect us across space and across time. Nora Ellen Groce’s Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, about the up-island community that incorporated both deaf and hearing people as equal participants, is out in the world inspiring people who may never visit Martha’s Vineyard. Few people now living have firsthand memories of that community, but it lives on in the stories that were told to Groce, and from which Groce created the story that she told to the world.

I believe that stories playing out right now on Martha’s Vineyard, some on terra firma and others in people’s imaginations, are at least as dramatic, at least as funny, at least as worth hearing, as 25/7 Productions’ docu-soap about recent college graduates sun-and-funning on Vineyard beaches. How do we tell our stories when we fear we have nothing worthwhile to say? When we’re working two jobs and trying to meet the never-ending challenges of living in a manic-depressive seasonal economy? And if we do, against considerable odds, manage to get them told, how do we get them into the wider world when so many gatekeepers in the mass media think their version of Martha’s Vineyard is more exciting, more sexy, more commercial, more authentic than ours?

Damned if I know, but I suspect we have to make it up as we go along. We’ve got plenty of raw material: writers’ groups and workshops; people with the technical skills to produce books, videos, CDs, TV shows, radio shows, and websites; talkers, storytellers, singers, actors, and teachers. If we can put it all together, maybe someone out there will listen. We might have a hit. Got any ideas?

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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9 Responses to Docu-soaping Martha

  1. Sharon Stewart says:

    Hope it doesn’t end up like Jersey Shore: a bunch of drunken housemates falling down on the Boardwalk and flashing their junk at nightclubs. (Any boardwalks or nightclubs on MV?)


  2. Susanna – You’ve touched upon a subject that has perturbed me for years. Any true-to-life story about the ‘real’ Vineyard, unfortunately, goes undiscovered. Or, if a story happens to be conveyed (excepting, of course, the publications you mentioned), it is usually a distorted version of an opulent lifestyle; with no basis in fact or truthfulness outside of those with the means to support that one-sided perspective.

    Thanks for sharing your introspective post (as you always do). And, know that I’m right there with you! Perhaps we can collaborate and come up with something to edify the public about the true Vineyard and those who sincerely love and appreciate that wonderful Island.



  3. Juleann says:

    Let’s be honest — being 20-something on M.V. is The Best! It is. A time to be treasured, remembered, and probably not repeated. You can’t help but fall in love when you are 20-something on M.V.

    Having said that . . . my biggest concern about the docu-drama-soap is that whenever celebrity shines on the Vineyard — whether “Jaws” or fall-out from a Presidential destination vacation — is that we become a little more like whatever they bring with them. A little less of who we thought we were.

    Have you seen the cadre of garishly painted buses lined up along the side street next to Jim’s in OB? Someone believes that is the story of Martha’s Vineyard. Those buses deserve a petition.

    We should all remember that we are decades away from the community reflected in the books by Milton Mazer and Nora Ellen Groce. The demographics have changed and our year-round community is now mostly made up of people who came here from away; are not really from here at all. That was not the case when they wrote those books; between Labor Day and Memorial Day the Vineyard was grittier, more humble, less fashion, willing to make do.

    For myself, I have no interest in letting the “outside” world know the “inside truth” about the Vineyard. Come and enjoy the summer, swim, get tan, fall in love . . . then, please go home.


    • The demographics have changed for sure, and we are decades away from the deaf/hearing community described by Groce, but when I reread Mazer about three years ago, I was struck by how much of the first part still applied. Depression isn’t far below the surface, and what anger we muster usually isn’t channeled into anything constructive. These days it’s not the elements that we have no control over, it’s economics. I went to the housing forum in Chilmark the other night. The picture is pretty damn depressing, and the depression sucks you in whether you grew up here or not.


  4. Pam Benjamin says:

    Don’t forget all the oral histories that Linsey Lee has recorded. I would say that this is the essence of Martha’s Vineyard and they are all nicely archived at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The idea of any LA group coming here to exploit, take advantage of and use the Vineyard for selfish and self-seeking purposes is enormously repugnant to say the least. Would anyone like to start a petition?


  5. The world has changed tremendously since 2009. It would now be possible to do a real-life parody of the fake reality show, and have it go viral on the Internet.

    Do we know somebody who does videos? Let’s do “If The Vineyard were really the Vineyard,” and follow some middle-age schlumps to a Groundhog Day party, and a planning board meeting, and an appointment at the chiropractor. Share the excitement as summer comes and our heroes suddenly can’t believe how much traffic there is, and how rude people have suddenly become. Watch them say goodbye to the beaches they’ve walked all winter, as they take on extra hours and fight for parking spaces at the supermarket.


    • Ooh yeah! Watch them browse the Dumptique, and mortgage their shacks to buy organic vegetables, and argue with their spouse while waiting for traffic to get moving at the drawbridge . . . Who did Willy’s video?


  6. Dennis Shanley says:

    Well, at least you are not “The Hamptons” so you don’t need to convince the TV World that you are not at all like the Graysons on Revenge.


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