Though the scale was minuscule compared to so many other lives and events, the tragedies of Sept. 11 placed a huge blockade in front of our plans. Our New York date was Sept. 29; we were due to leave on the 28th. It seemed so soon after the raw wound, and some students and parents expressed concern about the appropriateness of the event, fears concerning safety, and how far-ranging the physical manifestations of the devastation were. A meeting was held at the school to discuss the trip; it was decided to seek a postponement. However, we learned in the next few days that the New Victory Theater, a performing arts theater for youth and family audiences, was essentially booked for a year. A subsequent meeting was held, with the explicit intention of allowing respectful listening to all expressions of issues, opinions and concerns.
By that time, many had received letters, phone calls and emails from friends in New York urging us to come. Still, some felt that we could be in the way of rescue and/or clean-up efforts. Others still had very real concerns about their families. The discussion was open and honest, and even some of us who still wanted to go felt it presumptuous that we could possibly bring any particle of solace to such devastation. However, as one cast member put it, “we might be putting a tiny band aid on a gaping wound, but let’s do it.” At the end of the meeting each participant or parent reported to Rick West, executive director of North Haven Arts & Enrichment, their decision to go or not go. We had a large majority of those who voted to continue with the trip as planned, though 10 students – mostly elementary age – stayed behind.
As most islanders know, when you’re dealing with population numbers the pool is small. Consequently, in most cases there’s no such thing as understudies. A quick recruitment of essential cast members drew in several who were willing to jump in to round out the numbers, especially vital for the “Lobster Girls” number and important for the visual appearance of “Spring Song,” a.k.a. the “Boot Song.” With only one or two rehearsals under their belts, the four new recruits performed admirably. Several days prior to the final full rehearsal before taking off for New York, it was decided to open the rehearsal to the public, with donations going to New York and Washington Relief Funds. Slightly over $1,100 was raised.
The media had muckled onto the story of a tiny island community that decided to bring its message of community to an injured New York. Our arrival at the New Victory Theater on the afternoon of Sept. 29 was a media event. As we exited our rather luxurious bus, flashbulbs popped, video cams came at us from assorted directions, tiny reporters’ notebooks were at the ready, and a stunned gathering of bystanders almost perceptibly ran brain scans to try to fit names to the 50-plus faces that were streaming off the huge white bus. Some asked for autographs, perhaps thinking that a visible reminder would give them a hint as to what all this attention was all about. It didn’t. As one cast member keeps saying: “But it’s just us!”
A grueling, excruciatingly bad technical rehearsal in the afternoon left us drained and wondering what on earth we thought we were doing. Meanwhile, television crews remained outside the security-tight building (the cast and crew were required to wear badges) interviewing various cast members. Foy Brown, who was making a special appearance as himself for the “Joy of Foy” number, remained outside the theater while theater personnel scrambled to find another badge for Foy’s wife, Viola. The media seized the occasion to interview him. One of our favorite quotes issued from this opportunity: “We found it all right, just went straight down I-95,” when asked how he found New York. (Had we known the humor was outside the theater, we probably would have bagged the performance and all jumped ship.)
Our call was 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. performance. Aaron Robinson, our intrepid musical director, jump-started the cast and crew during warm-ups. His reassurance, and that of John Wulp’s, bolstered our courage, though some of it leaked away again while we waited in the dressing rooms. The dressing rooms were actually equipped with makeup lights, lots of counter space and chairs, toilets, showers, ironing boards and irons, plugs for hair-dryers – a world away from the storage bays at the gym on North Haven where all our previous full performances had taken place.
When we got in line to go onstage at the New Victory Theater, most of us were in a bemused state. An aura of unreality permeated the atmosphere, and the enforced backstage quiet was effortless. Once again, there was the thought “what on earth are we doing here?”.
It all became obvious when we began to file onstage. The clapping began, and grew in intensity and volume as more of us entered. Then the cheering began, and row by row, the 500 people in the audience stood up to greet us. The love and support that flowed from them almost overwhelmed us, and many of us, particularly the adults, wondered how we would sing with such monumental lumps in our throats and tears that began to well in our eyes. We stood on that stage, transfixed at the welcome, but grinning from ear to ear.
Finally, Aaron gave us the signal to sit, and the performance began. Many of us who compared notes later found that the hour’s performance seemed to fly by in an instant, despite the fact that the applause and enthusiasm following each number took a while to die down. The current of support and affection that flowed back and forth between the audience and the stage was almost palpable. The reception following the performance filled the lobby, and expressions of gratitude, typically “this is the first time I’ve really laughed since September 11,” echoed on all sides of us.
We returned to the island knowing that we were to perform at the New England Association for Gifted and Talented Education Conference on Oct. 12. Meanwhile, there had been some talk about an additional performance, one that would send all net proceeds to New York relief funds as a way to show our gratitude for the encouragement – and the accolades – we received. In an admirably short amount of time, a gig at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium came together. Funding came together too, with supporting dollars from MBNA (with thanks to the Island Institute). The time, however, seemed too short. How could we possibly begin to fill four times as many seats as we had at the New Victory Theater in less than a week? The tickets went on sale on a Friday, with the performance scheduled for the following Thursday. From reports from PortTix and the visual scan of the audience, we came close to filling those 1,900 seats. “But it’s just us,” resonates another time.
Once again, the technical rehearsal was dismal, but this time it seemed a good sign. And it was. Once again, a wildly enthusiastic audience overwhelmed us before we even sat on the staging. Once again, the performance time flew by. Though the audience was enormously larger, being closer to home had clearly helped with the draw. There were many familiar faces with connections to our island, or other islands. But not 1,900 faces.
With some of the discussion at school centering around desk time that students were missing, another piece was suggested to hold this puzzle of “but it’s just us” together. At the suggestion of an elementary teacher that we add a more intimate, “community service” performance, we arranged to perform some musical selections from “Islands” at the Barbara Bush (pediatric) Wing of the Maine Medical Center. To a person, the entire cast agreed that while New York was grand in scale and heartening in performance, and that the Merrill Auditorium was even grander in scale, it was the 40 minutes we spent in the atrium at the pediatric wing that were most emotionally wrenching, and most meaningful on a personal level. Singing songs of teen discontent, songs of longing and songs of community to an audience consisting of children with IV poles, children whose hair has fallen out, children encased in bandages, children surrounded by concerned parents and caring nurses, somehow disarmed us – we were not prepared for the intensity of the emotion. Our small audience was unable to show the appreciation to the extent that others had, but we knew it was there. The return of that appreciation from the cast to the audience was no less enthusiastic than it had been at our other performances. We emerged from the experience stunned, and to some degree and in some sense, chastened.
Our final performance at the Holiday Inn by the Bay for the Gifted and Talented was that evening. There was no tech check. The slide projections that are such an important part of the show would be barely visible. We didn’t have the staging and we didn’t have the appropriate lighting. Aaron advised us that since we were performing in an enormous room, fully carpeted, acoustically tiled, richly draped, we could just sing our hearts out and have fun. That we did. The audience appreciated our enthusiasm and energy and happiness and responded accordingly. We all had fun.
Is it over? We don’t know for sure. There is talk about reprise, there is talk about selling amateur rights, there is talk about a CD. Whether or not it is truly done, the experience of Broadway, of singing and performing in front of 1,900 people, of being media darlings, of being part of something that our island has created, will be with us for our lifetimes, and told – and probably embellished, island style – for generations to come. And still we say, “but it’s just us”.
Thanks to MBNA, Surdna, the Maine Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, North Haven Arts & Enrichment, and legions of people who made this production possible.
Through its various efforts, the production of “Islands” made it possible to send over $25,000 to New York and Washington Relief Funds.
North Haven resident and former Island Institute Community Services Director, Lisa Shields works at the North Haven Community School and – need we say it? – was a member of the “Islands” cast. Special thanks to Barney Hallowell for the photographs accompanying the article.