ONE MOMENT in Island Theater - FOUR DECADES of Creative Ripples -Fall 2017
The Nantucket Stage Company lasted only a year and performed on a converted middle-school stage, but the plays developed and performed that season found a home on and off Broadway.
by: John Stanton
Slowly, the island slipped out of view. Tears rolled down his face as he stood on the deck of the steamboat. He had no idea what was next.
“I find that moment traumatic still,” said John Wulp, now 89 years old and living in North Haven, near Vinalhaven, another little island off the coast of northern Maine.
“I sold my house to pay off all the Stage Company’s debts, which were $80,000. The only asset I had was ‘Dracula,’ and I didn’t even own the professional rights to that yet.”
It was the spring of 1975. Wulp’s theater company, The Nantucket Stage Company, had finally reached an agreement to take over the Straight Wharf Theater. On April 19, the very night the keys were handed over to Wulp, the little theater burned to the ground.
Ask around and you hear accusations of unsolved arson, of hard feelings between local community theater and equity, or professional, theater. Wulp is content to just assume the cause was faulty wiring, exacerbated when the theater space was emptied.
But this is not a story about endings. This is a story of how art is a determined act of creation. It is the story of the ripples that sometimes push out from the center of such creative acts. The Nantucket Stage Company was in business for just a single season, 1973, but the work done that season still reaches audiences, the people involved still create.
“You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” the playwright John Guare said over the phone from New York, asked about those ripples. “You’re
talking to John Wulp, to John Shea, aren’t you? The arts keep you alive. It literally is life-giving.” Stories like this have many beginnings, but let’s say this one begins on Jan. 13, 1973. Guare said he celebrates that day every year it rolls by on the calendar. It is the day he picked up the
telephone and Wulp was on the other end. Guare, now 79, had lived on Nantucket in 1962, when he was still at Yale Drama School, caretaking
at the Main Street home of Mrs. C.L. Sibley. “Mrs. Sibley and her husband were the most wonderful people,” Guare said. “I could write. I could work all day and mow the lawn once in a while. The island seemed off the beaten path in those days. It was as far away as I could get for $35.” When “The House of Blue Leaves” opened Off-Broadway, Guare sent a copy of the play to Sibley, with a note that read, “I did become a
playwright. Your caretaker, John.”
In 1962, Wulp also arrived on-island, having
found a house where he could stay in exchange for painting and doing some repair work. He had won an Obie Award in 1961 for directing “The Red Eye of Love,” Off-Broadway. He had cobbled together a living as an artist, painting portraits. He had worked as a short-order cook.
He didn’t know Guare then, but he later became friends with Sibley.
In that 1973 phone call, Wulp told Guare that Sibley had a big birthday approaching. More than anything else she wanted to see “The House of Blue Leaves” on Nantucket, with the original cast. The play had won an Obie Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American Play of the 1971 season.
Wulp had written his own play years before, while serving in the Marine Corps as part of the White House honor guard. It was called “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe,” a musical about a medieval woman who has a vision of Christ and decides to devote her life to holiness. It opened in Cambridge to good reviews, then it tanked in New York.
“I had wanted to do the ‘The Saintliness of Margery Kempe’ in New York and everyone turned me down,” Wulp said. “I realized the only way I
could do it was to start my own theater group.
“I was living on Nantucket. I knew John Guare had worked as a caretaker for a woman named Mrs. Sibley and once lived on Main Street. I called him. Instead of ‘House of Blue Leaves,’ he suggested a new play. I agreed to do it before I read the whole thing, just to have John
Guare be part of things here.”
Mel Shapiro, who had directed “House of Blue
Leaves” Off-Broadway, agreed to come along to direct this new Guare play, “Marco Polo Sings A Solo.” Wulp remembers a meeting where Shapiro asked the perfect summer-stock question: “Are you planning on doing something anybody would like to see?” They settled on something
tried and true: “Dracula.”
“Then I was at a party and Bobby Bushong (a
Nantucket artist) staggered up to me and said I should get Edward Gorey to design the set,” Wulp said. “I thought that was a great idea. I looked up his phone number in Barnstable and called him. He said, ‘Sure, why not?’ The next day he called and said no, but I convinced him to do it.”
Shea remembers that having Gorey do the stage design made all the difference in the world. “The genius of ‘Dracula’ was when John asked Edward Gorey to design the play,” he said. “The play itself is a fairly musty melodrama, but when
Gorey designed it, it became a work of art.” Gorey was already creating vaguely ominous, Victorianor Edwardian-themed little worlds in the pages of books like “The Unstrung Harp.” He worked in pen and ink and by the time Wulp dialed his number, he already had a cult following. “He was famously reclusive. And he was of course instantly recognizable. He wore a bearskin coat over his bathing suit and his high-top Converse All Stars. And he had his full-length ZZ Top beard. He was a sight to behold,” Wulp said. And that was it. Wulp had a theater company. He had a new, and as yet unfinished, play by one of the best playwrights in the New York theater world, and his director. He had a chance to do
his own play. And he had Edward Gorey.
“You make the moment,” Guare said. “That’s what it feels like every day. Things are always
starting out of the blue. People are always saying things are never going to happen, until somebody comes along and makes them happen. It was romantic and realistic and great fun.”
All they needed now were actors and a stage.
“There was no theater on the island expect Straight Wharf,” Wulp said. “So we made a deal for the Cyrus Peirce middle-school stage. It was only 16 feet by nine feet, but Roger Morgan came to work for us and he was a great designer. He went on to become one of the foremost theater designers in the country.”
Buzz Bissinger, journalist and author, worked for Guare along with his sister Annie. She managed the house. He was the publicist.
“It was great. John was kind of a genius,” Bissinger said. “It was quite remarkable. These were really quality productions that came out of nothing. I don’t know how he did it. He was different. He was very, very secretive and very, very smart.”
Shea, then in his early 20s, was looking for work. He had been part of Mac Dixon’s Theatre Workshop troupe during the 1968 and 1969 sea-
sons at the Straight Wharf Theater, but recently found himself out of a job.
“Mac fired me, saying I was drunk and disorderly one night, when what really happened is that I had just fallen in love,” he said. “So I thought I’d open my own playhouse. I went to New York to try and raise money for it and found out somebody was a year in front of me. I think it was the Bissingers who said I should go talk to John Wulp.”
The two met. Wulp hired Shea as assistant director and sometimes actor. His first assignment was to help find other actors.
“Wulp asked me to scout my class at Yale to see if anybody else wanted to come,” Shea said. “I knew two people who I thought would be just right. So I drove them to New York City to audition for Wulp. One was Meryl Streep, who auditioned for the female lead, the role of Lucy, who Dracula falls in love with.”
“She did the best audition I ever saw in my life,” Wulp said. “But I had already hired Ann Sachs. She was Roger Morgan’s girlfriend.”
“I think it was the only audition in her whole life where she didn’t get the part,” Shea said.
Sachs went on to play opposite Frank Langella in the Broadway production of “Dracula.” She also married Morgan.
“John Wulp had good taste in actors,” Shea said. “He knew the New York City actors and directors and he knew who to ask. And everyone wanted to come to Nantucket. In 1973, nobody ever heard of it. But as John painted it for them, I am sure it sounded great. John was paying union wages. Still, there was a summer-camp kind of feeling to the whole thing that was very informal.”
The list of actors included names like James Woods (Oscar nominee for “Salvador” and “Ghosts of Mississippi”), Piper Laurie (“The Hustler,” Oscar nominee for “Children of a Lesser God”), Grayson Hall (Oscar nominee for “Night of the Iguana,” and starring role in the television series “Dark Shadows”).
The first and only season of the Nantucket Stage Company began with a hit. “Dracula.” Design by Edward Gorey. The production caught the attention of The New York Times.
“On this island there is a road called Broadway, a reminder of the time Nantucket had a theatrical community. But, with the exception of the Straight Wharf Theater, which specializes in home-grown revivals of Broadway hits, Nantucket had largely lost its interest in theater – until this year when John Wulp founded the Nantucket Stage Company.”
~New York Times, July 9, 1973
It described Gorey’s work this way: “The stage has been transformed into a haunting Gorey environment, full of the artist’s characteristic bats and skulls.” Newsweek magazine also sent a writer. The result was a similarly glowing review.
“Suddenly all the New York producers and investors started showing up,” Shea said. “It was sold out. Then two years later it opened on Broadway and ran for two years and made millions of dollars, with the same director and the same designs. Frank Langella played the part of Dracula. Wulp became the toast of Broadway.”
Guare was already the toast of Off-Broadway. Not only had “The House of Blue Leaves” been a critical success, but he and Shapiro had won a Tony Award in 1971 for a rock-opera version of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
“Marco Polo Sings A Solo” was presented as a work in progress. Shea remembers Guare working and reworking the second and third acts, even as rehearsals were going on.
“Here was this larger-than-life genius who was bubbling with ideas and constantly rewriting,” he said. “He’d come in with 20 new pages. It
drove everyone in the cast crazy. We had a shirt made for him with a big pencil stenciled on the back and the words: Capt. Re-Write.”
The play is set on an iceberg off Norway, in 1999. One reviewer called it “a surrealistic comedy ... about a culturally dysfunctional world.”
It might not have been a good choice for a Nantucket summertime audience.
“It was a big, sprawling epic of a play,” Shea said. “This was a play about inter-stellar space travel, about the fate of humanity. And while it wasn’t the great success ‘Dracula’ was, Joe Papp produced it a couple of years later in New York at the Public Theater.”
“There were people who loved it and people who were offended by it,” Guare said. “It was controversial and people did not come to Nantucket to spend their time going to this kind of theater.”
“The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” was not very well received, either. Wulp was not happy with the performance. To this day he is not happy with his female lead. He had wanted Zoe Caldwell, who went on to be a four-time Tony winner, but she was not available.
“It had to be done with Zoe Caldwell,” he said. “The actress who played that part on Nantucket was just not up to it. I still think it’s a great play.”
And then it was over. Two things happened toward the end of the season that Wulp feels might have led to what happened next.
“Richmond Crinkley, who was just beginning at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, wanted to use the Nantucket Stage Company as a place to develop new work for the American theater,” he said. “The idea was he’d give us money each year. People in town became irate that the Kennedy Center was going to be involved. They felt it would be a threat to the local theater group.”
On top of that, the little middle-school stage had not fared well during the season.
“We had put platforms, metal platforms, on the floors, supporters for the seats, and the school’s wooden floors buckled. It was a nightmare. We quickly fixed the floors, but there was no possibility of going back there the next season,” Wulp said.
It took him two years to work out an agreement to bring his stage company to Straight Wharf Theater, where Theatre Workshop was having its own financial troubles. And then the fire put an end to it all. Wulp sold his house to cover the debt. It would be four decades before he returned to Nantucket.
One morning before Wulp left Nantucket for good, Guare knocked on his door. Wulp was not around, but sitting at the table was a young woman named Adele Chatfield-Taylor. She and Guare eventually married.
“We met that day in his (John’s) empty house and have been together ever since,” he said.
Guare’s “Lydie Breeze Trilogy” is set on Nantucket. The cycle begins with Lydie’s childhood during the age of whaling. It then moves through the Civil War and American Utopianism, and to the beginning of 20th century industrialism.
The complete cycle is being done in Philadelphia, at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
Guare said Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, who was journalist and writer David Halberstam’s first wife, was the inspiration for Lydie Breeze.
Shea said the lessons learned that summer have stayed with him through a long career as an actor, screenwriter and director. His most recent film, “Grey Lady,” was shot on Nantucket.
“What I learned was that anything is possible from Nantucket, if you have a good idea and if you surrounded yourself with talented people,” he said. “I saw ‘Dracula’ go from a middle-school stage to Broadway.”
On the phone from Maine, Wulp calls himself “An old man, in a dry season, waiting for the rain.” In the next breath he adds, “I’m going to
New York tomorrow to start my life all over again.” He laughs, almost to himself.
Austin Pendleton, the director, wants to meet with him to talk about bringing “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” back to the stage.
The years since the demise of his stage company have been a definition of what a life in the arts means. His paintings have had New York gallery shows. More recently, he taught theater for over a decade, at the tiny school on North Haven.
He helped write the book and directed a musical called “Islands,” which is based on island life and includes North Haven islanders and school kids. In the weeks after September 11, it played at the New Victory Theater, on West 42nd Street in New York. Critics called the play a salve after the horrors of the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Wulp said the play also helped heal a divide on North Haven, over the value of arts education. Eventually residents raised $2.5 million to convert an old storefront into a small theater.
“In many ways I think local theater is more unified,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody. And people go to see how an actor they know can take on a certain role. If you think of the the-
ater during the time of Shakespeare, it was in many ways a community theater. Everybody knew each other. There was something you don’t really have in New York theater, in commercial theater, anymore. It is probably more interesting to try and make a theater work in a small, contained place like Nantucket or North Haven, than on Broadway.”
In October a London production of “Red Eye Of Love” will begin rehearsals.
“I have all these plays, that I think are great plays, but critics keep disagreeing with me,” Wulp said, chuckling.
He also has published a book of poetry, called “Cormorant Time.” One of his poems has a line about how trees “Know things/About living and dying/And coming to life again.”
A lifetime in the arts – the successes and failures – has left Wulp with the same wisdom.
“It is always such a struggle if you produce shows,” he said. “You always have to be raising money. But apparently it was just something I couldn’t help doing.”///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and writer living on Nantucket.