Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some thoughts on seeing THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH in Alaska:
About a dozen years ago, Photographer/ filmmaker Ward Serril invited me to work with him on a theatre piece about the Prince of Wales Island caves. Ward was living in Ketchikan at the time, and had been caving with a group of people who been steadily making more and more amazing discoveries, including finding signs of human habitation from about 10,000 years ago. Southeast Alaska, it seemed, might have seen some of the earliest North Americans.
Much more recently, I read Fairbanks writer Dan O’Neil’s book THE LAST GIANT OF BERINGIA, about the geologist who pieced together the various bits of evidence to map and describe the size and nature of the Bering Land Bridge, that original route through Alaska from the Asian continent. Most fascinating to me was the revelation that the land bridge was very broad and covered with grassland, and quite unlike the tundra of today.
Since learning about the landbridge from Dan O’Neil’s work, the village of Shishmaref, which is located on a sandy island near the Bering Land bridge national park and preserve, has needed to make plans to relocate due to erosion. The island where Shishmaref is located has been subject to greater wave action because warmer arctic winters has changed the ice pattern, leaving the island unprotected by ice for more months of the year than before. And so the land bridge continues to dissolve even today.
Living in Alaska, seeing natural wonders and the most active geology on the continent, gives Alaskans a very geologic sense of time. Alaska is a land that was never tamed or conquered, and is unpredictable to live on even today.
This, then, is the place where we are producing THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH. Thornton Wilder, in his play, describes an American suburb bounded by a wall of ice, with large, and strange animals in the back yards. In Juneau, people leave their homes to come to see the play, with a view of the Mendenhall Glacier from their yards and streets before making the drive to the theatre. Just yesterday a visiting actor arrived at the airport, drove out to the glacier, saw three bears and then went to watch THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH. Like Mr Antrobus- Wilder’s everyman protagonist- All of us at the theatre took it in stride.
Alaskans know something of keeping warm and making do, just as the Antrobus family does. We have floods, earthquakes, fires, and fought World War two here, in the Aleutians.
Wilder’s theme is not about enduring trials so much as carrying on, about renewal, about starting over. Many Alaskans start over and over again; How many people do you know who have re-invented themselves in Alaska? It is the perfect place because there is no one to tell you not to. In Alaska, a construction worker can become an actor, an attorney general can become an artist, and a poet can be a fisherman. Living here, where we have to re invent our lives as the sands shift around us, we all seem to have second, third, acts to our lives. More than any other stubborn, optimistic, iconoclastic population of Americans, we know how to make the best of it and start over.
We are all of us, in Alaska, named Antrobus- the family of man- and thank Thornton Wilder for writing a play that celebrates us, warts and all.
Art Rotch, Artistic Director

Thursday, September 17, 2009

September, 2009

This Blog is dedicated to writing about Perseverance Theatre, a company that I’ve known intimately for twenty one years and now am proud to lead as the Artistic Director. Perseverance Theatre has been many things and touched many lives over the years, and we are today a prominent regional theatre that is also a uniquely community-owned, Alaskan entity. Over the coming months, I’ll write about the theatre in general terms and more specific entries about the work on our stages. I hope that this writing will be interesting and engaging to Perseverance’s audience in Juneau, all the artists who are connected to the theatre and people generally interested in the cultural life of Alaska and the future of the American regional theatre.

This first entry, about the founding vision for Perseverance at its inception, I co-wrote with Molly Smith, Founder of Perseverance and now the Artistic Director at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC:

Perseverance turned thirty years old in 2009. While celebrating our anniversary, we were reminded that, in 1978, our founder, Molly Smith, was advised that Juneau is too small and remote to support professional theatre. Yet, we’ve been here more than a generation now. Were those advisors wrong, or did the impossible happen?

Part of the answer is that the idea that launched Perseverance- the vision of a Professional Theatre that was built in Alaska, by and for Alaskans, was compelling and strong enough to overcome all the challenges and obstacles that those early experts warned about. The barriers to creating a professional theatre in Juneau are real, but the energy and imagination of the founding idea was strong and powerful enough to launch Perseverance thirty years ago, and sustain it as it grew to its present scale today.

I’ve been with Perseverance for twenty one years, beginning in 1988-1989. While I worked with all of the founders, I missed the earliest days. I recently talked with Molly about the very beginning and what her vision, as a founder, had been. I wanted to understand better Perseverance’s roots, to get a grip on the long-arc of the theatre’s thirty years in order to prepare best for our future.

Our founding Mission Statement was to be “A professional theatre by, for, and about Alaskans.” The words professional and Alaskan were equally important, and taken together carved out a niche for Perseverance from the outset:
In Anchorage, there was a professional theatre, the Alaska Repertory Theatre, committed to hire unionized artists and operate like a regional company in a typical great American city, while Anchorage was building itself with Oil boom petrodollars into a prominent northern urban center. In Juneau, there was a long standing amateur theatre, the Juneau Douglas Little Theatre. Molly wanted to create a new theatre with it’s own unique model in Perseverance: A professional company that paid artists- even if it can be only a small amount- with an expectation that they would commit to professionalism in their work, making a shared commitment to artistic quality. Also, an Alaskan company, that developed Alaskan talent both onstage and behind the scenes, in order to make an Alaskan flavor of great, professional theatre for an Alaskan audience.

From its inception, we who are Perseverance Theatre have debated the nuance of both words: Professional and Alaskan; the debate defines us. Professionalism, to PT, isn’t as simple as checking if someone has a union working card on the day we hire them. It means instead, do they bring a professional attitude to their work on our productions. Similarly, Alaskan does not refer to one’s length of residency, zip code at the time they are hired or heritage, even while all of those things (and more) can come into play. From the beginning, we’ve looked for artists whose imaginations are captured by the great land of Alaska, by the idea of Alaska, who can speak passionately through their art to our Alaskan audience. We meet these artists wherever they are found, and they become part of our company. We then challenge the company on every production to make work that is true to where they are working.

Our willingness to think with an open mind about who can be a professional and who can be an Alaskan imbues a pioneering dimension to Perseverance, which reflects Alaska’s unique history and ancient, wild landscape: Alaskan’s take pride in knowing that not all the normal rules apply up here on the last frontier. We don’t have to do it like they do “outside” in the lower 48. Of course, we do borrow what works from colleagues in the American theatre, and we stand on the shoulders of thousands of years of tradition and knowledge built by many generations of theatre artists. But like all Alaskans, to thrive here we improvise and make up our own rules from time to time. Our remoteness makes us self reliant and innovative. We are in a pioneering state, and so we are free to be a pioneering theatre company. To be an Alaskan theatre artist is to be even more ready to ask fundamental questions, to challenge assumption, in the ways that great artists all do. Because we live in a sparsely populated state, we ask those questions while living close to and knowing well the audience that will experience our work.

Making theatre that reflects our place in the world is a big idea: Alaska is a big state full of many languages and stories as unique as the history and geography of what is better described as a sub-continent than a state. Ever since our inception, we have challenged ourselves to reach beyond our Juneau home to speak for and bring work to other parts of the state. In the early years we went to places from western Alaska with 1982-1983’s YUP’IK ANTIGONE to numerous small communities in Southeast Alaska. Many different productions have travelled Alaskan communities large and small over the years, and many Alaskan artists have come to Juneau to work here on our mainstage as well. As we grow more experienced and mature as an organization, we will struggle to find ways to make our best work- which is not as portable as it once was- to reflect the full scale of Alaska. Like founding Perseverance in the first place, we look forward to finding innovative ways to do the impossible: be a regional theatre that represents in our work and our audience all of the largest state in the union. It is a challenge that promises to keep us, literally and artistically, on the theatrical frontier for at least thirty more years.

Come back to read more over the coming weeks and months of the 2009-2010 season about Perseverance Theatre’s founding and how sticking to our founding vision has made us the leading national theatre we have become, and how we aspire to stay true to our founding vision while securing our future for another generation. I’ll alternate this kind of writing about every two weeks with material about the plays we produce on our stages.

See you at the theatre,

Molly Smith, Founder
Art Rotch, Artistic Director