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At last Friday’s screening of her new documentary, On This Island, at D.C.’s Signal 66 gallery, Stephanie Slewka found herself in what any filmmaker would consider an ideal situation. “It was bursting at the seams!” she says in disbelief. “I told people, ‘We’re sold out, but you can stand up,’ and I was letting all these people in, and eventually someone said to me, ‘You can’t let anyone else in!’ So I had to stand outside and police the door, and I turned away at least 20 people.”
Not bad for a film about a small Maine town torn apart by a fierce debate over the direction of the extracurricular arts program in the local K-12 school—a story Slewka, 39, thought wouldn’t play to D.C. audiences at all. “The Signal 66 crowd is very trendy, and I was thinking, This is not a trendy-crowd film,” she says. “But they were laughing and crying, and people came up to me in the end and said, ‘I grew up in a small town.’ That’s what’s amazed me about the film: It’s not just about Maine; anyone who knows something about a small town can see that in the film.”
Slewka began working on On This Island, her first independent documentary, in October 1999, after a screenwriting friend tipped her off to a bizarre battle being waged in North Haven, Maine, where the 350 year-round residents all know each other—and resent the 1,000 or so “outsiders” who invade their utopia during the summer months. When one of those visitors, the Broadway producer John Wulp, retired to North Haven in the late ’90s, a forward-thinking principal recruited him to run the school’s theater program—and a battle between old and new ensued.
The gruff tell-it-like-it-is theater pro got busy staging a kid version of The Tempest—avoiding such happy-go-lucky mainstays as Grease—and whipped the students into thespians with harsh criticism that didn’t fly with some members of the local community. The town split into warring factions: those who didn’t like the changes and those who welcomed a chance for the kids to aim higher in the arts. Before long, residents had stopped waving to each other in the streets; some even threatened physical harm. Wulp’s solution was to bring the town together to write a musical about the rift; North Haven ended up with Islands, a production cast with townspeople and students that made it all the way to Broadway, where it staged a few benefit performances after Sept. 11.
A Culpeper, Va., native who now lives in D.C., Slewka began her career working in radio in Belgium in the early ’80s. She moved back to the States in 1984 to work as a newspaper reporter and later as a freelance TV producer—which took her to hot spots such as Croatia—before crossing over into film. Of all her formidable experiences in media, she says, the one that made her most anxious was her initial encounter with the narrator of On This Island: Sigourney Weaver, a longtime friend of Wulp’s. “I was so nervous to meet her, and the night before, I had gone to a book-release party for a friend and gotten completely drunk,” says Slewka, whose film will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival, both in March. “The next morning, I woke up with the worst hangover, and I was just hoping I wouldn’t throw up when I met her. But at least I was too sick to be nervous anymore.” —Aimee Agresti