What Does the Play Need?

Why I Cancelled a Workshop in Favor of a Two-Week Trip Through Rural Alaska

Lingít áwé wa.é. Woochéen yei jigaxyinéi.

You are a human being. You are to work together.

This is a corner post of Tlingit education. In a beautiful Tlingit curriculum by David Katzeek online, he begins with lessons by a Tlingit Elder that perfectly encapsulates the informal lessons I have been taught over a lifetime.

You are a human being. You are to listen.

You are a human being. You are intelligent.

You are a human being. You will respect all things.

These three I hear reverberating in every admonition from my grandma, every lecture from my papa, every song sung from my mother, every art discussion from my father.

But it’s the last one—You are a human being. You are to work together—That one. That’s what all the other lessons really lead to. I have applied them to my schooling, to my relationships with family and friends, to my marriage. But in my professional life, I have struggled to apply these lessons. In a society that demands we conform to the dominant culture, you get too used to just doing what “you’re supposed to do.”

And this is where I found myself in my own theatre commitment, weeks away from a workshop for an unfinished Alaska Native adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I had really been enjoying the process of creating this comedic take. Until now.

two people outdoors

Playwright Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) and playwright Vera Starbard (Tlingit/Dena’ina) in Devilfish Bay on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Photo by Joe Bedard (Inupiaq/Yup’ik/Cree).

Lingít áwé wa.x’edéi kakgees.áax. You are a human being. You are to listen.

I was on the phone about Native Pride (and Prejudice), and I confessed to my mentor and dramaturg, Larissa FastHorse, that I wasn't that excited about the reading. Our plan was to meet in Juneau, hire some actors, and spend some time revising. Do the drill. Done and done.

I just felt…uninspired.

Larissa, ever the one the get my brain shooting in a different direction than it was going, posed a simple question: "If you could make this time working on your play anything you wanted, with any amount of money, with however much time, what would you do?"

The answer came quickly, because it was not well buried. I would take this to the village. I wouldn’t do this in a city. Just as the original Elizabeth Bennett came from a rural community with different cultures and values than the city visitors, my Alaska Native Eliza Bennett was born into an Alaskan rural community. It’s a play meant for Alaska Native people who were born in communities of fifty people, 500 people. Places you can’t get unless you take a bush plane, or grab a boat ride. I told her, in much less refined (but more wordy) tones, I would do this in a place with people who don’t have to reconnect with the land because they never lost the connection to begin with.

You are a human being. You are to work together ... That’s what all the other lessons really lead to.

Larissa's response? "Great! Where are we going?"

The rest of the conversation was basically a whirlwind of wild, creative dreaming, and I was reminded once again why I would never be letting go of Larissa as my mentor. Our on-paper relationship must often be defined by what our profession dictates in contracts and grant applications. But despite us primarily communicating via text and social media, our actual relationship is no less traditional Native Master Artist and Apprentice than any my ancestors would have experienced.

The first cornerstone is to listen, and so I did. I had my doubts that we were “breaking the rules” of whatever theatre checklist the universe had, but off we were, myself with an awful lot of trust that what my much more experienced theatre mentor was saying would work…well, would work.

a lake surrounded by mountains

A twilight view from Douglas Island in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Vera Starbard.

Lingít áwé wa.é yaakoodzigéi. You are a human being. You are intelligent.

My biggest concern was the idea of getting actors in these remote locations to read the play as we traveled and wrote. Traveling in the rain forest of Southeast Alaska is no joke. It's something I grew up doing, but it's not speedy, it's almost always raining, and you really have to know where you're going and how you're going to get there.

In the two weeks dedicated to this adventure, we would travel to and around ten different Alaskan communities by plane, small boat, canoe, large ferries, and car, passing through three more communities. Some were no more than a few dozen residents, reachable only by boat. A few were some of the biggest cities in Alaska (which, admittedly, aren’t really that big.) We struggled enough to find actors in the cities—how on earth would we find them in the small communities?

Larissa had mentioned the idea of community readings as something she had done with her plays before. But until I actually organized and participated in them, I vastly, vastly underestimated how valuable they would be. A community reading in itself is simple—you just ask regular, non-theatre people from the community to do a reading. But that simple exercise changed the whole flow of my play.

I had my doubts that we were “breaking the rules” of whatever theatre checklist the universe had, but off we were.

For instance, I knew I wanted my Native Pride (and Prejudice) script to look and sound like what I was born to—Alaska Native people. Yet my Jane Austen fanaticism was a hindrance. What ended up on the page sounded like Alaska Native people…via eighteenth century England. One really can watch too many film adaptations.

From the very first scene of the very first reading, read in the community on Prince of Wales Island I was born in, I knew my script was off. Way, way off. The dialogue was a little too Colin Firth, and made the humor forced.

Another reading in a different community was entirely organized by someone who heard what we were doing and wanted to help (because this is exactly what Alaska is like). I was nervous, having no control or knowledge beforehand of who would come and what their skills might be.

So without knowing what to expect, I brought my play about a modern group of young girls who were from a small Alaskan community, danced in a Native dance group, and teased each other about dating and marriage…to a household in a small Alaskan community full of young women who danced in a Native dance group and constantly teased each other about dating and marriage.

I confess much of that time I literally just wrote down the banter between them word-for-word. Gold mine.

What I had forgotten in my professional life—and what ironically much of the play espouses—is that the most intelligent, meaningful answers to my problems have come from my foundation, from the people who made up that foundation. I had begun this play to celebrate the complexity and wit and humor of the Alaska Native world I loved. Why on earth hadn’t I considered going to the source in the first place?

a group of people in a living room

Community reading of Native Pride (and Prejudice) in Anchorage at the end of the two-week Southeast Alaska trip. Photo by Vera Starbard.

Lingít áwé wa.é. Yaa at yakgeenéi. You are a human being. You will respect all things.

Between all the readers in the different communities, we had fifteen different tribes represented, all the five major regions of Alaska, and people representing thirteen different rural Alaskan communities.

But it’s not a numbers game. In the end, it was the most intangible experiences that got the most “results.” When I walked in the rainy Southeast woods of my childhood, I started to renew my relationship with all the imaginings of light and of dark and castles made of forest I had left there long ago. I recognized all those ethereal creatures I communed with in childhood that fueled any piece of work I’ve ever been proud of.

When I sat in a traditional Haida clan house that hadn't been occupied in a hundred years, I thought of the people who walked along the boards, and made fires to warm themselves and cook, and what they thought of, and who they dreamed their great-great-grandchildren would be.

When I paddled a traditional Tlingit dugout canoe along the coast of a village, listening to a girl drum the songs of her ancestors—of my ancestors—I thought of the men and women who had done this for thousands of years before me, and what strength they had.

When I searched the forest at an old village site my ancestors abandoned long ago, I saw where mighty Tlingit houses had stood, and totem poles long fallen or taken away, and thought about whether my grandmother's grandmother's grandmother could ever dream her granddaughter would still be looking for her these hundreds of years later.

When I hiked along the waterfall near a site so ancient people don't remember just where the village was, I could see the ancient people moving in the mist, and the great tentacles of the Devilfish reaching up and up from the dark waters to drag them down to him.

interior of a native alaskan home

The Whale House, a traditional Haida clan house, near the village of Kasaan. Photo by Vera Starbard.

Lingít áwé wa.é. Woochéen yei jigaxyinéi. You are a human being. You are to work together.

In the end, this trip looked nothing like a “traditional” Western writer’s retreat. In all honestly, for the weeks it took I did little writing outside of notes, and maybe a few short scene revisions while floating along on the large ferries of Southeast. It could be described as a research trip, but had little to do with books, or interviews, or getting accurate facts of some kind. And it was nothing like the workshops or readings I have been navigating in my somewhat newer field of “American theatre.”

I found myself, so many times, reassuring those we were working with, who were reading my words out loud, or showing us things, or telling us silly stories about who kissed who at the tribal dance, that they needn’t know anything about theatre. “I’ve never acted in a play!” or “I won’t be good—I’ve never seen a play in a city or anything!” Time after time I would say, but you’ve performed those traditional songs in front of hundreds. But you’ve lived the life this character lives better than any person in any city. But you know this story. But this story is yours. But this story is ours.

And in the time since, I have found myself repeating my own words to others back to myself so often. When someone not of my culture questions why this character speaks this way. When someone with decades more experience in “American theatre” doubts my storytelling style. When my greatest critic—my own self-doubt—rises to say I am straying outside the accepted path. I am straying from what the dominant culture says I’m supposed to do.

But I know this story. This story is mine. This story is ours.

A community reading in itself is simple—you just ask regular, non-theatre people from the community to do a reading. But that simple exercise changed the whole flow of my play.

And so it is those corner posts of culture I lean on, not my Western education, to tell my stories. To tell our stories.

I genuinely can’t count all the people who helped make that trip as remarkable and inspirational and productive as it was. In the end, I have not one, but two scripts—Native Pride (and Prejudice), and Devilfish—inspired by, revised because of, made better because of this writing journey that began with listening to someone who knew better. That developed because of the intelligence of my people. That will introduce the world that is “American theatre” to the specific idea of respect my culture holds dear. That will ultimately results in productions crafted by many people working together.

More than the work on the scripts, more than the art that will come of it, more than the production and the stage and the audience and the revisions and the readings, the value I found was in the connection to so many who had come before me. My own history is tied in tightly with the history of my ancestors, and the land of my ancestors has always been where I feed my soul best. And from the soul, inspiration, and from inspiration, thought, and action, and beauty, and humanity.

Tlingit aya xaat.

I am a human being.

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Congratulations, it is very interesting, the theater is just life experience, cosmovision, sound, landscape and adventure. How much I want to know your work! Greetings from Guatemala

Vera!  This is such a gorgeous telling of your experience -- and so important.  You remind me of what I tell myself all the time as a writer:  I am always writing, even when I'm not writing.  I'm always "developing a new play" even when I'm not around a traditional table listening to my play. I am always standing on the shoulders of my own history, and my ancestors' histories.  You've given us all a gift by reminding us that being an artist is being a human being -- curious, intuitive, capable of being surprised.  Thank you!