March 20, 2023

All the island’s a stage> Community theater alive and well on North Haven

Pardon me, I pray you. I thought that all things had been savage here.

— Orlando in “As You Like It”

Marthena Webster finished school for the day and was heading home vigorously on her bicycle. Side to side she pumped at the pedals, an ocean breeze flapping her hair, a carefree smile filling her face. Her fervor had a touch of Jo from “Little Women” or Lizzie from “Pride and Prejudice.”

But in fact, Marthena was Rosalind at North Haven Community School’s production of “As You Like It” earlier this month in North Haven, an island off the coast of Rockland. She was one of four seniors involved in the show, which featured children from the middle school and adults from the community — teachers, a minister, fishermen, a construction worker, an artist, musicians.

Marthena is also one of four seniors who make up the entire graduating class in a town whose year-round population is 332.

“First of all, I love it,” says Marthena of her acting career, which has included roles in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “It’s such an important part of my time here.”

Time here. That’s how everyone at some point refers to living on North Haven, which is 8 miles long, 3 miles wide and an hour’s ride from the mainland. They say how much time they’ve spent here. What they do with their time here. What they did with the time spent away from here. And what they’ll do in the time to come.

Time does something to people on an island this small because, without the race of the city or even the mainland, you can feel the minutes passing by the spruces and houses and shoreline of North Haven.

More than that, you can hear Shakespeare here. Really hear him.

And that has to do with John Wulp, another subject that everyone, at some point, refers to in North Haven. Wulp, who is an artist and teaches drama at the North Haven Community School, has been directing plays on the island since 1995. But his “time here” can’t be explained without looking back to an earlier time.

Wulp, who is 70, grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and studied literature at Dartmouth. After a year at the Yale School of Drama, he joined the U.S. Marines to serve in the Korean War. When he was done, he went to New York City.

The list of his accomplishments goes on and on. He has won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Circle Critics’ Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award, an Obie and a Rockefeller Grant. He founded and directed at Playwrights Horizons Theater School in New York, and for years rubbed elbows with New York’s theater hotshots. Those who know Wulp from those days say he was — and is — revered and loved.

“John is so brilliant,” said actress Sigourney Weaver, in a phone call from New York. She and Wulp met in the mid-1970s, and have worked on several theater projects together through the years. “It was so easy to work with John. His standards are very high. He has the soul of an artist. He’s a great observer of human nature and a great enthusiast for honesty. Every time I work with John, it feels like such a gift.”

Still, if you ask Wulp about his time off-island, he’ll tell you frankly: “I couldn’t make it in New York.” He had successes and failures, as everyone does, but practically speaking, his type of failure is the type most theater professionals can only dream of.

In 1985, Wulp arrived on Vinalhaven, which is separated from North Haven by a thoroughfare of water. After directing, designing, producing and writing for theater elsewhere, Wulp had been struck by the work of Fairfield Porter and wanted to see the same land and sea that had inspired that artist. In short, Wulp wanted to be a painter. So he did what many painters before him have done: He moved to Maine.

But it wasn’t until years later, with his work hanging in galleries, that Wulp was romanced back to the theater. One wintry day, he bumped into Barney Hallowell, the school principal, on the mainland. They were old friends, but as he ferried Wulp back to North Haven, Hallowell got an idea.

“I knew then that I wanted John to work for the school,” recalled Hallowell. “He said he would not direct, that he was done with that. So we called him creativity director.”

Hallowell was able to hire Wulp privately through the school’s Arts and Enrichment Program, which Hallowell established in 1991. Because the regular budget doesn’t provide for much in the way of arts, Hallowell began asking for money from the community and grant organizations to hire guest specialists in visual art, photography, music, dance and drama. The first year, he raised $13,000. This year, the budget for all creative arts is $130,000.

When Wulp first showed up at the school three years ago, he was instantly controversial. Students didn’t know why he was shuffling into their classrooms nor by what authority he was critiquing their papers and thoughts and lives. But by that November, Wulp was back in his old role as director, this time for the Christmas play. After that, came “Earnest,” then “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which had an entirely successful reprise during the summer for seasonal residents.

“The efforts and care and love and enthusiasm that these productions bring to the island is monumental,” said Andre Bishop, artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater and summer resident on Vinalhaven. “The spirit of what’s happening and the dedication to professionalism under John’s leadership is astounding. He’s a force of nature.”

Mainers know this phenomenon of the local play that brings the community together and holds special charm for summer crowds. But Wulp goes beyond that. An expert in his field, Wulp can put together a play tighter and sharper than most directors who oversee professional theaters. So there’s never any question — nor any response short of amazement — about what he can accomplish with teen-agers and nonactors.

“I don’t want to say `it’s good for kids,’ because that would be condescending,” added Bishop, who has known Wulp for 25 years. “What I appreciate most of all, in terms of the plays, and what I find truly outstanding and unusual for any group of people — kids on an island or seasoned Broadway professionals — is the clarity with which the plays are spoken and acted.”

Still, some parents find Wulp’s methods harsh. “He shouts at the kids,” one islander alleged without giving a name. “I just think he’s too hard on them, he works them too hard and it interferes with academics. That’s what school is supposed to be about.”

Actor David Cooper, a mail carrier on the island, said Wulp is never malicious. He’s dynamic. “This is his passion,” said Cooper, who has coached school basketball. “That’s one of the reasons he gets kids to do as well as they do.” One young girl in the cast said, “Mr. Wulp works us hard, but it pays off.” And as a measure of the aura around the man, an 11-year old said, “If you want something big or if you want to meet somebody, you just have to talk to Mr. Wulp.”

Still, the earlier critical remark represents a stiff opposing tide on North Haven, the same one that tried to get Hallowell fired a few years ago because of a rigorously progressive approach to education.

But time seems to have lessened the controversy about both Wulp and Hallowell. One detractor actually showed up for “As You Like It,” and, afterward admitted easily, “It was great.”

“Putting on plays has always been — since the Greeks — an act of community,” said Bishop, who has seen most of Wulp’s productions on North Haven. “The community was suspicious, but in a few years the attitude has changed radically. Half the town wants to be in the plays now. That’s not only a testament to John Wulp but it’s a testimony to the healing power of theater.”

Later on the same day Marthena Webster had been riding her bike, she was backstage in the gym, more than a mile away from the school. While applying stage makeup, she listened to a CD her sister, a student at Colby College, had brought over on the ferry that day.

“It’s incredibly hard,” said Marthena, who wears her 16 years with both vulnerability and strength. “It takes me a long time to understand Shakespeare. But it’s so rewarding. I have a tough time being confident as a person. Playing these roles has given me confidence.”

Wulp cannot explain the seemingly innate ability island kids have for delivering Shakespeare’s lines articulately and lyrically.

“I don’t teach them,” said Wulp, who paced around the gym before the show went on. “I tell them, `Please don’t act. Just find a way to be yourself in the role. Say the line as if you just came up with it.’ They love language and are willing to explore it. They don’t have the technique of a professional actor. On the other hand, they bring something to it that you can’t get from professionals. It’s a mystery to me. There’s great, great talent here. It’s like a dream company.”

He paused, but only dramatically, and lightened his tone.

“It’s also like a nightmare company because they’re kids and they say, `Do we HAVE to do that?’ It requires enormous patience.”

Hallowell said it doesn’t surprise him that the students understand Shakespeare.

“I’ve always been amazed that North Haven kids are very good performers,” said Hallowell, whose father taught drama at a prep school in Massachusetts. “When you walk downtown or see the kids in school, they’d be telling stories, mimicking characters in town, and they really got it. It’s part of the tradition of the island. That verbal kind of communication is the way the island knows itself. People are very observant. You live in a place like this and you have to be observant.”

When the lights went down on opening night, Wulp, who always dresses smartly regardless of the event, slipped quietly backstage.

“Give me your hands if we be friends,” he said, and everyone joined hands in a circle.

“Take energy from one another,” said Wulp benedictionally. “I think the show is going to be incredible. It’s up to you now. Go out there and do it.”

For nearly two hours — and without an intermission — time stopped while Arden Forest rose to life simply, unpretentiously, stunningly. Wulp had hired professionals to build the sets and lights and costumes. But it was his own professionalism that built the grace and spirit and success of the actors.

“You ask why I want to do this here rather than in New York,” said Wulp after the show. Then he reiterated: “I couldn’t make it in New York. And I really believe theater has to return to a sense of community. Somehow I think that what we’re doing is what the play is really about: It’s clear. I finally found what I wanted all my life. When I watch the students, I begin to cry. I wonder if I am getting dotty. But they just move me so deeply. I guess I’m getting to be an old fool.”

The next day, in Marthena’s English class, the students were restless for the weekend. Some of them went to the previous night’s performance. Many were in it. Others simply didn’t care. In this way, North Haven is very much like other schools.

“As You Like It” will play again in the summer, and may be performed in February in Rockland. But this is for sure: It won’t be forgotten.

“I love it,” said Asa Pingree, a senior who plays Orlando, opposite Marthena’s Rosalind. “It’s an incredible experience like no other for me. I don’t know why I love it so much. I see it as a great challenge.”

Then his comments turned toward time on the island.

“I don’t feel at all isolated,” he said. “North Haven feels more like the whole world than most places I’ve visited. I’m anxious to get away. But this is an amazing place. I’m glad I grew up here.”

Marthena, who has also lived on Vinalhaven, agreed.

“Growing up here and on Vinalhaven, I definitely have a sense of place,” she said. “I think I’ll always have that. I’ll always say my house is on an island. I wonder if many other people have that.”

In the spring, Asa and Marthena will, undoubtedly, be in Wulp’s production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.” Like so many others, they wouldn’t miss the fun, the work, the connection, the chance to learn firsthand that all the world’s a stage.

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