The Film
Whoever thought that at the age of 70 on a little island off the coast of Maine I would find the company of my dreams? - former Broadway producer John WulpJohn Wulp

waves breaking

The show must go on... Filmmaker Stephanie Slewka recalls a harrowing ferry ride

It was a bleak winter's day and we were boarding the North Haven ferry after a crack of dawn departure from D.C., a flight to New Hampshire and a long drive to the ferry terminal. The sky was gray, the wind was whipping and there were whitecaps on the waves. But we were determined to be on island to meet up with Cindy Bullens, who had written the first Islands songs and who was going to work with the kids on new songs.

Outside the harbor, the swells were big. It was too rough to sit in the cabin, so the three of us stood out on deck, hanging on to anything we could with both hands. The cameraman managed a few shots and no more. The wind tore off the tops of the waves, the rain slashed down and as the ferry rose up eight, ten feet to ride each wave. We wondered where Cindy Bullens was. Perhaps she had taken the morning boat. The boat hit a big wave and our rental car rose off the deck of the ferry. The rain sloshed in sheets past us and we started to laugh at ourselves standing out in the rain, clinging to the railings.

Once we set foot on North Haven, we drove around looking for someone, anyone who could tell us what was happening, where the rehearsal was, when Cindy would be playing her songs. Cindy's house was dark; no one had seen her. That's because she hadn't come. She was still in Portland. "I called the weather report and they were forecasting 12 to 14 foot waves and I don't take the boat in weather like that," Cindy said. Good thing we had brought enough wine on island to sink a ship.

Boat Fixer

Sunset in North Haven
John Wulp - Mathieu Mazza/News Group
Ocean - Eric Hopkins
Man fixing boat - Eric Hopkins
Sunset - Eric Hopkins

North Haven, with its two general stores and one post office, lies 12 miles and an hour's ferry ride off the Maine coast. For the thousand well-heeled people who spend summers at their ancestral homes there, it is an idyllic escape from the bustle of modern life. But for the 350 year-round residents, many of them lobstermen whose roots on the island go back centuries, life on North Haven is a proud legacy, characterized by hard work, cold and lonely winters, complicated familial ties and Yankee stubbornness. As one native islander says, North Haven is one of the few places in America where kids grow up without the three Ms - movies, malls and McDonalds. It is home to Maine's smallest school, where the student body can fit into one room and enrollment (for four-year-olds to high school teens) numbers 80 at the most.

For years, North Haven's locals could count on the summer people going back home every September, but recently some have decided to live on the island year-round, challenging the old order and often creating resentment. Seventy-year-old John Wulp says he moved to the island to die. An award-winning theatrical producer, he walked out on Broadway hating the world of theater, convinced it was all idle amusement; he came to the island to paint and spend his final days as far as possible from the infighting and jealousies of show business. But soon after his arrival, he was recruited by North Haven's school principal Barney Hallowell - still considered a newcomer after 20 years - to work with the island kids on a theater project. To his astonishment, Wulp discovered everything he had been missing in New York.

Principal Hallowell had noted that the island kids seemed to have a special gift for performing, and a talent for recreating the unique quirks of their neighbors. Maybe it was due to the isolation and boredom, or minimal pop culture influences. Wulp decided to accept the challenge and took on the role of demanding, perfectionist taskmaster. At first taken aback by his gruff style, the kids soon fell into line and gave the program their all. Not only were they mastering Shakespeare and Beckett and winning state contests, their grades improved as well. And for Wulp, it was a chance to reconnect with theater, life and the contagious enthusiasm of youth.

But a faction of islanders vehemently disapproved of what was happening at the school, seeing Wulp as a Pied Piper whose big city background would lead their kids off the island, and whose emphasis on the arts would detract from the three Rs of education. A nasty feud ensued, dividing families and estranging neighbors. There were threats, vandalism and harassment. Eventually the school board voted Principal Hallowell out of a job. The students protested, taking their cause to the state capital, and Hallowell was reinstated but returned to an island still deeply divided by the conflict.

Wulp decided to try to heal the wounds by creating, along with Grammy-nominated songwriter and part-time islander, Cindy Bullens a musical that would give expression to the lives and hearts of North Haven's residents. It is the genesis of that play, Islands: The Musical, that forms the core of ON THIS ISLAND, the film. Wulp and Bullens interview the islanders and turn their musings into songs. Casting the islanders as themselves, something magical occurs as the show progresses on the bumpy yet exhilarating road to opening night. Islands is a hit, and Wulp decides to organize a one-time Broadway benefit performance. Then, terrorists strike on 9/11. As the film concludes, the islanders of North Haven present their unforgettable show about community and healing on the island of Manhattan to a packed house grateful for their message.

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