John Wulp, a Tony Award-winning director, producer, playwright, designer, visual artist and educator who lived and taught on Vinalhaven and North Haven for nearly 30 years, died Tuesday at age 90.
His death at a hospice facility in Rockport was confirmed by his caretaker for the past two years, Micah Conkling, and by Christie Hallowell, a longtime friend and executive director of Waterman’s Community Center in North Haven, a venue where Wulp staged countless plays over the years.
“He as recently as just the other week had been talking about doing one of his new plays at Waterman’s next summer,” said Christie Hallowell, who said Wulp had been in poor health for a number of years but that his death still came as a surprise. “He was active right until the very end.”
Wulp was born in 1928 and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. He attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and went to Yale School of Drama for graduate school, but dropped out to join the Marines in the late 1950s. His early life is detailed extensively in a memoir, “My Life,” which can be read on Wulp’s website.
He had his first big success with his play, “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe,” which he wrote while in the Marines and which premiered Off Broadway in 1959 starring Gene Hackman. That play received an Off Broadway revival earlier this year. He also directed the play “The Red Eye of Love” Off Broadway in 1961, for which he won an Obie Award. Wulp 50 years later refashioned “Red Eye” as a musical, which was workshopped extensively at Waterman’s in 2007 and in 2013, and which premiered Off Broadway in 2014, with set design by fellow Vinalhaven resident Robert Indiana, who also died this year.
In 1978, Wulp won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play for his production of “Dracula” on Broadway, starring Frank Langella as the title character and featuring set design by illustrator Edward Gorey. He also received a 1979 Tony nomination for his production of the Sherlock Holmes play “The Crucifer of Blood,” starring Glenn Close. In the 1980s, he taught at the Playwright Horizons Theatre School at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
In 1992, Wulp left the New York theater scene and moved to Vinalhaven, a place he fell in love with nearly a decade earlier after a sailing trip around Penobscot Bay. According to a profile of Wulp published earlier this year, he had run out of money while living in New York, and initially had to support himself packing frozen lobsters and working as a short order cook on the island.
Among his first friends on the island were Barney and Christie Hallowell, who at the time owned and operated the Pulpit Harbor Inn. Barney Hallowell, the former principal of the North Haven Community School, first hired Wulp to direct plays at the school in 1994. Initially, Wulp worked with elementary school students to create an original play about people from North Haven that they missed in their lives.
That play, “The Enchanted Ferry Boat,” was such a resounding success that high school students immediately went to Principal Hallowell to ask him to let Wulp direct them in a show. For the next decade, he directed plays and musicals for both the school and at the community center, including “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “HMS Pinafore,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It” and “Waiting for Godot.”
Barney Hallowell said Wulp had a transformative effect on both the school and the island community as a whole — not least because he was instrumental in the founding of Waterman’s.
“I think every community needs something to hang its hat on, whether it’s sports or something else. For us, that thing turned out to be theater, and that is almost entirely because of John,” he said. “John was fascinated by how to bring out creativity in people, and how it transforms people, and how to make it a part of the daily life in schools. He was absolutely inspiring, even if he infuriated some people.”
Tom Emerson, a teacher at the North Haven Community School who was one of Wulp’s students during his time at the school, said that though Wulp was uncompromising and often difficult to get along with, he was never anything but totally committed to his students and his art.
“Whereas many people resented John’s brusque and at times insensitive attitude, I never found him anything but a man who had never lost his sense of wonder, and who would destroy himself to bring that vision to life for others,” Emerson wrote in a Wednesday Facebook post. “If we worked hard, John jumped into the trenches and worked harder.”
In 1999, Wulp and Maine singer-songwriter Cidny Bullens created “Islands,” a musical about life on his adopted island home. After a 2001 New York premiere, the show toured Maine, and later was the focus of a PBS documentary, “On This Island,” narrated by Wulp’s longtime friend Sigourney Weaver.
“John is so brilliant,” Weaver said in a 1998 Bangor Daily News article. “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.”
Though he is mostly known as a theater artist, Wulp was also an accomplished painter, photographer and poet. His collection of photographs of the renowned modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham was purchased in 2015 by the New York Public Library, and a book of his poems, “Cormorant Time,” was published in 2017.
“He really was a true Renaissance man, in every sense of the word. He was a brilliant painter, and he was a short order cook,” Barney Hallowell said. “I don’t know that everyone appreciated what a truly extraordinary person he was, and what a vastly varied life he lived.”
It is not known at this time if Wulp had any immediate survivors, and no plans for a funeral or memorial service have been announced yet. An informal remembrance gathering will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, at Waterman’s, the 134-seat theater dedicated to him.