John Wulp, the legendary Vinalhaven theater director who turned fishermen into actors, died Tuesday at age 90.

Wulp spent many years in New York and won a Tony Award in 1978 for his revival of “Dracula” on Broadway, but his lasting impact is on the hundreds of islanders he turned into theater lovers, said Dylan Jackson of Vinalhaven, who worked with Wulp on productions for more than 30 years.

“For myself, personally, and for a lot of other people, our experience with him either set us on paths that we have followed the rest of our lives or influenced the paths we took, or it helped us develop our mature personalities, express ourselves and have confidence and be comfortable with ourselves,” Jackson said. “Those lessons had a huge influence on my life.”

Wulp was in hospice when he died Tuesday in Rockport, said Christie Hallowell, executive director of the Waterman’s Community Center on North Haven.

Wulp moved to Vinalhaven in the early 1990s and produced many of his plays, some of which he also wrote, on North Haven.

Hallowell said Wulp had been in poor health, but he expected his stay in hospice would be brief – and that he would return to the island soon. “He didn’t think he would go in there and die. He thought he was going in to get his medications realigned. He told a friend, ‘I will call you when I get out,’ ” said Hallowell, who did not know the cause of death.

Wulp is the second Vinalhaven artist of national acclaim to die this year. Robert Indiana died at age 89 in May. The two men were friends, though they had a falling out for a number of years, Hallowell said. They mended their differences and collaborated on a production of “The Red Eye of Love” a few years ago. Collectively, their deaths have reshaped the island community, she said.

“When people like John die, it is a shift in the universe,” she said. “We have small communities out here. When someone dies – anyone, and especially people of magnitude and the presence of John and Robert Indiana – it really is a shift and a benchmark in the history of the island.”

FROM STARS TO ISLAND KIDS

Jackson said Wulp’s legacy was his ability to work with people, young and old, with little or no theater training and teach them to become comfortable on stage. After seeing some of his island friends thrive on stage, Jackson got involved. “It was amazing what he could do with my peers,” he said. “He was able to turn regular guys into incredible actors.”

Born in 1928, Wulp grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and attended Dartmouth College, where he learned to design scenery, direct and write plays. He continued his theater studies in graduate school at Yale, and later joined the Marines.

His early life in theater was defined by his collaborations with stars. Gene Hackman appeared in Wulp’s “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” in 1959. Frank Langella starred in Wulp’s revival of “Dracula,” for which Wulp won the Tony. The illustrator Edward Gorey designed the set for that show. Glenn Close starred in one of his plays, and the actress Sigourney Weaver narrated a PBS documentary, “On This Island,” based on a musical he wrote with songwriter Cidny Bullens.

His theater life on the islands was defined by his work with kids and laypeople. Barney Hallowell, former principal of the North Haven Community School, said Wulp shifted his focus from the professional theater to education and community theater when he arrived on Vinalhaven.

He told Hallowell he was interested in working with the students at North Haven, and Hallowell took him up on his offer. “I didn’t think he was serious, but I was serious that I wanted him to work there. We agreed he would come on opening day of school. I didn’t expect he would show up, but that was John. He was there on opening day, and I wasn’t ready for him. I didn’t have anything, even a way of paying him,” Hallowell said. “I scrounged around and came up with some money for him, and he would show up every week.”

Wulp’s influence was massive, Hallowell said. Wulp chose “The Importance of Being Earnest” as his first serious play at the school. Hallowell remembers it as “a great, great success” and an important moment in the school’s history. “It was a masterpiece. To see our students perform, that was one of the most exciting times in my career. To see a performance of that quality and beauty was incredible – and that was just the beginning.”

In addition to his work in theater, Wulp also took photographs, made paintings and wrote poetry. He published his memoir on his website, johnwulp.com.

INFORMAL MEMORIAL

Waterman’s Community Center on North Haven will host an informal memorial at 7 p.m. Sunday. “Some of us were feeling the need to get together and share some stories and reminisce and mark John’s passing,” Hallowell said. “It’s not a formal memorial, but we’ll get together and set up some scenery from his plays on the stage and just remember him.”

Linda Nelson, assistant director of the Maine Arts Commission, knew Wulp from her previous work creating programming for Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House. She discussed collaborating on a project with Wulp, but it didn’t happen. “Wulp’s work just across the bay from us on North Haven was inspirational,” Nelson said. “He was a stellar example of the difference one person with artistic vision, dedication, and a commitment to education and excellence can have for everyone in every community, regardless of size or isolation.”

Creative and brilliant, Wulp also was prickly and often difficult to get along with.

“His life to some extent was theater itself,” Jackson said. “He was often very challenging to work with, he was so demanding. His standards were so high, and he was inflexible in meeting them. In a small community, he often ran into conflict. But it seemed so often, his more dramatic statements were often kind of staged. If you broke the fourth wall with Mr. Wulp and got past his act, you got to know the actual person, and he was a sensitive, caring person who never did any harm.”

Hallowell, the former principal, agreed. “He was complex, but he was truly a genius and truly a Renaissance person. We all benefited from knowing him and working with him.”

Wulp had been in poor health, his friends said, suffering from a variety of ailments, some heart-related.

In an interview at his Vinalhaven home in 2012, he told the Press Herald he was beginning to feel the harsh realities of old age, isolation and ill health.

“It’s very lonely when you find that all your people have dementia or Alzheimer’s,” he said. “Practically everyone I know has either died or is crazy. You can’t imagine what it’s like.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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