Islander has travelled oceans to get here.
Originating as a devised piece in the Isle of Mull off the coast of Scotland in 2018, Islander tells the story of a girl who dreams of a life past the shores of her little island. The only child left in her vanishing community, she is swept into the uncharted seas of adventure when a mysterious stranger washes up with the tide. The Scottish folk-inspired score features looping technology for a sound mix created live during the performance, and a cast of two bringing the fictional island of Kinnan to life.
The two-hander toured unconventional venues in Scotland before making a splash at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, where it was named Best Musical. Its London debut was punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but even lockdown couldn't slow Islander down; they recorded a radio drama version for the BBC, created a film version for Dundee Rep, and expanded out into international productions, with versions of the show being presented in Poland, and South Korea throughout 2021, while the original duo, Kirsty Findlay and and Bethany Tennick, opened the show Off-Broadway at Playhouse 46.
As Islander's run comes to a close, Findlay, Tennick, producer Molly Morris (Come From Away, Diana), and director Amy Draper shared how this intimate musical about island life has come to traverse so many isles.
When did you start working on Islander?
Amy Draper: It's been a long journey. The idea started forming around 2014 or 2015; I've worked as a theatre maker and director for a long time, and the kind of work that excites me the most is new work, and working with collaborative teams over quite a long period of time. I finally settled on an idea of isolated culture, heritage, and island identity in 2017, when we spent a week on the Island of Mull doing the initial workshop.
Bethany Tennick: They were looking for a girl and a boy to come on board with a show that had not been written yet. It was a devised piece, so there was no script. They didn't even know who the characters were yet.
Kirsty Findlay: They knew there was going to be whales. When we first did the show on Mull, it was three weeks of improv, basically. Amy facilitated the room, because it was her original idea, and Stewart the writer and Finn the composer would take our improv's, and go away and write the scenes we had come up with, and make them better. We had to get it up on its feet in three weeks, learn it in three weeks, get it written, and do it.
And then you made the leap from this small, initial production and tour, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
Findlay: So the first tour was really intimate, tiny Scottish places, we set up everything ourselves. Bethany and I set up the sound, we had two speakers, the loop station, the loop pedal, and two microphones. We did everything. We had total control. Fringe is the biggest international creative festival in the world. It is a 'come together' of comedians, dancers, theatremakers, musicians, artists...
Tennick: I think the Fringe is so special, because there's four festivals going on at once. There's the Edinburgh International Festival, which started it all, and then there's the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, the International Comedy Festival, and the International Dance Festival, and it all happens in Edinburgh at the same time.
There's 130 venues across the city, and honestly, for anyone who has not been, it is mental and you have to do it at least once. Everywhere you turn, there's something for you, whether you want to spend 50 quid on a high budget theater ticket, or do a pay what you can. Our tickets were cheap.
Findlay: The Fringe Festival was amazing, it's definitely one of my favorite experiences with this show, because we were sold out every day at 10 AM, and it was a big mix of Scottish people and an international audience in a big tent in the round.
Molly Morris: I have been going to the Festival every year since 2005. When the pandemic happened, and theatres shut down, I really started to question myself about what we produce. I kept thinking about Islander, because it meets all of my criteria; the stories I think are important, that people can relate to and be uplifted by. Everything that we needed in this process of healing was here, small and intimate. Once the ball started rolling, it went quick.
Islander was busy throughout the pandemic, with radio and film versions coming out as the cast recording took off online. Were you at all concerned about what it would be like to perform this show outside of Scotland and the U.K.?
Tennick: Coming back to Islander was much more of a deliberate choice. We found out during our Fringe run that we were going Off West End. And then we did the BCC radio version, and the Dundee Rep film version... we could have said no, but it wasn't really a choice, was it? Like of course, I'm doing it. When we got the offer for this, it was a real sit down and think about it choice.
Findlay: Because we both have other things in our lives now. A couple of years make a big difference in your twenties. It came down to what this show is, and what it means. We've had a lot of people tell us that this is the way they like theatre to be, and that's why we do it, as well. It's pure storytelling. It came from a really great room of people who just wanted to tell a good story with heart and comedy. It feels like it is good for the soul. So we toned down the accents, and we came.
Tennick: Audiences are clever. Islander requires its audience to pay attention; we don't pander to them. Because we have so many roles, they can't just sit back and say 'oh there's the blonde, there's the redhead', they have to check the changes in our voice and our physicality. We try to make it as easy as possible for them, that's part of our job, but people are not dumb. We've had a lot of kids recently, and kids love it because they're not treated like stupid little people. No one is, because audiences are smart.
Where is Islander sailing to next?
Findlay: There has been a version in South Korea, a version in Poland. The fact that it can be done in another language is amazing to me. They have their own, totally different version of what island life is, but Islander still resonates.
Draper: It's sort of the dream, really, for other people to like your work enough that they want to make their own versions of it.
Tennick: It's kind of already happened. The first time we did it, for the island communities, they said 'this is so timely', and then we did it a year later at Fringe, 'this is so timely', and then it came up again during the pandemic... I just think it's very well written, the themes are so honest, and I see such a future for the show, beyond us.
Draper: I'm very humbled and grateful to be honest. It was a small idea, built in a community on the Island of Mull, and the right people saw it at the right time, and the stars aligned on it.
Islander, the new musical currently running at Off-Broadway's recently reopened Playhouse 46 at St. Luke's, has announced it will close June 13. The show began previews April 14 and officially opened April 21. Reviews can be read here.
The show transferred to the U.S. following a 2019 Best New Musical–winning debut at Edinburgh Fringe and features the two-hander's original cast members, Olivier nominee Kirsty Findlay and Bethany Tennick. Kara Arena and Mia Munn serve as their respective understudies.
Conceived and directed by Amy Draper, Islander features a book by Stewart Melton, music and lyrics by Finn Anderson, lighting design by Simon Wilkinson, costume design by Hahnji Jang, and sound design by Sam Kusnetz. Molly Morris, Helen Milne, Martin Platt for Pemberley Perry/PW Productions, and James Simon serve as producers.