NORTH HAVEN — Twenty-four years ago, a group of teens laboriously acted out a script that was far beyond their years while a lone, deep-throated man sat in the audience and laughed. It would be awhile before they realized that The Importance of Being Earnest was – in fact – a comedy.
As the teens performed the 3-act play for friends and family back in 1996, laughter filled the upstairs theater of Calderwood Hall, in North Haven, shaking the walls and floors.
This week, three of those teens who were inspired by John Wulp’s transformative years on North Haven will join other local cast members in a reprisal of Earnest in memory of Wulp, who died in 2018.
Of all the plays presented on the island through the years, Earnest was special, according to cast member Asa Pingree.
“It was a surprise, but also, it felt like a good fit for our community.... It was clearly the beginning of something.”
The actors performers will upon the stage constructed through the efforts of Wulp and about 30 other people who converted an old restaurant into Waterman’s Community Center and 134-seat theater.
The idea was to give Wulp’s plays a legitimate space rather than Calderwood’s second-floor venue, with its 8-foot tall ceiling and stuffy hot interior, or the school gym, or the church.
“[With] The culmination of more than four years, more than a dozen productions, I graduated high school and they built this theater,” said Pingree. “So, ironically, I feel like this is the outcome of my high school work as the lead for many of those productions – and yet, this is the first time I’ve ever been on this stage.”
Pingree is one of at least two of the students in the room for the initial Earnest who realized a future in the arts, just as North Haven realized a community passion in the same realm.
“In a way, he didn’t have a set idea of how to direct. He sat in the audience, expected us to do large chunks of the play, every rehearsal, for his entertainment. But it ended up being a brilliant style of direction where he was hands off, he was a good audience member, and he didn’t allow us to go back and rework things. We had to constantly fix them as we went....It became a sort of archetype that I held for years.”
Pingree was almost 14 years old when Wulp and Earnest entered his life. After high school, he took theater classes before taking the stage in New York. Though 14 years have past since those acting days, he couldn’t decline Director Adam Alexander’s invitation to reprise the role and entertain the community.
In 1995, Alexander had little knowledge of the dramatic arts in the eighth and ninth grades. He was not among the teen cast, rather, he was an audience member, having been urged by a friend to go and watch.
“After I saw Earnest, when John did it, I basically just did whatever I could do for him for every show,” said Alexander, who went on to assist Wulp as a stagehand for 13 productions.
Under Wulp’s tutelage, all-inclusiveness, and with a very forgiving North Haven audience, the island’s arts movement took flight far beyond the schoolroom. Wulp’s lighting guy was a regular electrician, according to Alexander, who happened to know how to wire lights. He invented a board that could have faders on it. Earnest actor David Wilson, an island woodcrafter who made the lattice background for the reprised Earnest, worked with Wulp on a number of productions.
Alexander and his friends created the annual Lung Fest, a music festival that lasted approximately eight years and drew hundreds of people each time. About ten years later the former teens organized a reunion Lung Fest, of which the audience grew to 500 people. Performing as an adult, Alexander viewed the experience differently, more self-consciously.
“A lot of the ability to any of that stuff, or interests at all [in the 90s] really came from John’s involvement at that point,” said Alexander. “It’s not like he was some mad genius, or anything. He came at the right time. He was persistent enough to force us to do things, and we were malleable enough to do them at that moment. It’s not necessarily that he had the greatest vision in the world. But we saw that he had a vision. I think that was enough.”
The community, as a whole, banked on that vision as well. The 134-seat theater built in the well-used Waterman’s Community Theatre fills for productions 3-4 times per year, and is also used for other events as well.
The coffee shop area, the preschool, and the theater keep the community together, as does Earnest, with only hired help coming from Stage Manager Meredith Perry and Costume Designer Kevin Koski of The Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor.
For Pingree, getting to Maine and resurrecting his lead role proved momentous. Pingree and his girlfriend have spent this summer awaiting the birth of their baby. As the summer months moved along, stand-ins on North Haven kept “Ernest” on the stage during rehearsals. Sometimes, according to Director Adam Alexander, the other actors looked up at “Ernest,” sometimes they looked down. In New York, where Pingree lives, the nail-biting continued. Would they get to Maine on time?
A little more than two weeks after the birth, Pingree and his family traveled North – a week before the first performance – home to his family, both inside and outside of the theater production.
His girlfriend “absolutely respected the fact that I wasn’t doing this for vanity,” said Pingree. “It was part of being part of the community and staying connected.”
The Importance of Being Earnest will be staged at the Waterman’s Community Center theater Aug.1, 2, and 3, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 4, at 1 p.m. The performances will be approximately 2 hours long, with an intermission in the middle of act two. “Good Heaven’s!”
Tickets can be purchased at www.watermans.org.
Reach Sarah Thompson at email@example.com