What Indigenous Writers Can Bring to Theatre

Let us introduce you to Alaska. It’s maybe not the Alaska you’re used to seeing portrayed. The first Alaskans have been telling the real story of the land for thousands of years. Yet so often, these are not the stories the rest of the world, or often even the rest of Alaska, knows outside of our communities. This week, we have curated a series that will introduce you to Alaska through a small group of Alaska Native theatre professionals. Through their own journeys in Alaskan theatre, we hope you’ll begin to see Alaska in a different way. Through the stories of those whose people have been here since Raven brought the light, we hope you will not only see Alaska in a different way, but theatre itself. Gunalcheesh! Quyana!—Vera Starbard, series curator.

As an Alaska Native artist, I’m not sure I have yet been able to express what I hoped to express in theatre. That feeling of not quite making it, of absence or hunger, often bubbles up in me when I read a play by Federico García Lorca or Jean Racine, for example, reminding me of the thrilling, startling, meta-corporeal experience I know I could foster and help bring to the stage.

When I am at my most personal, when I am most intimately in tune with my own thoughts, body, and being, I feel the disjointedness between my sovereign experience and the outer, colonial world. And I want to tell that story.

But I haven’t gotten to it yet. I often get the feeling of disjointedness between how I experience the world and how the social world expects me to think and act. For one, there is a whole other world where we know that we are sovereign. It is in the heart of our languages, embedded in stories and alive in our ceremonies. This other world is alive and well, fully functioning when an Elder speaks, when a potlatch is put on, when one wears their traditional regalia, even when playwrights such as Vera Bedard and Frank Katasse set out to tell their stories. This world exists in an undercurrent in the current settler nation-state. It lives and breathes, no matter how much it is discounted, misunderstood, no matter how many attempts, over centuries, to obliterate it. When I am at my most personal, when I am most intimately in tune with my own thoughts, body, and being, I feel the disjointedness between my sovereign experience and the outer, colonial world. And I want to tell that story.

The old stories, or “oral literature,” if you like, contain such vastness, such wealth and feasts of mind and spirit, that it’s almost like their presence is felt whether anyone knows the stories or not, as long as we still have our communities. And we have great Elders who still tell great stories. We all come from places of incredible artistic richness. I hold that it’s not romanticizing to celebrate the greatness of our Elders and ancestors. We hear enough of the flaws—we also need to acknowledge their gifts, and theatre is a place to do it.

I’m not quite sure what Native theatre is anymore. What I think it is for me is trusting the internal structuring of my psyche, even when it doesn’t match with the tools and education I get from this modern world. That’s part of it, at least. Another big part is responsibility, the sense of being accountable to a community. I often tell non-Native colleagues, in the multiple artistic fields I’ve engaged in, that I’ll be seeing the people. They know me. I don’t get to leave when we’re done with this. This goes generations deep. I have to answer to my community, and I believe it hones my art rather than limits it. I am tied in with a very rooted, real, deep community.

ten people standing and smiling
Special reading of Alaska Native-written play Our Voices Will Be Heard by Vera Starbard, performed at the 2016 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. Photo courtesy of Vera Starbard.

I think a number of Native cultures nurture a sense of somatic intelligence and a rich sense of space. This type of intelligence can really suit theatre and bring a lot to it—an active sense of kinesthetic and atmosphere. I mean, just watch the dancing, observe the ceremonies. There could be powerful stuff going on in body movement, spacial relationships, and vibrations of voice.

When I write, it’s the ghost of the full-bodied, colorful, spacial experience I’m having or imagining. Theatre can bring that full-bodiedness to life. It’s the “theatre beneath the sand” that Lorca talked about. I’d love to write a play that isn’t poetic but is poetry itself. Or, better, a play that’s structured with enough clarity, honesty, good faith, and love that the stuff poetry is made of comes down, or up, to grace the space with its multi-dimensional aromas.

This type of theatre has gripped me since I had an inkling of what theatre was about, mostly as I lay down reading books of plays by Lorca, August Strindberg, Caryl Churchill, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Racine, August Wilson…holy smokes! The places those writers take you. And you get it every now and then at live theatre, too, in the hollow stage floors that clump loudly, the actors projecting voices to the back row, stage lights revealing dust and motes.

Alaska Native creators claim exactly as much space as is needed for them to create the stuff that is inside them and part of their worlds. My wish is for the greater theatre community to support great writers like Vera Bedard and Frank Katasse. Support our Elders and communities. Recognize our sovereignty.

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Thoughts from the curator

The first Alaskans have been telling the real story of the land for thousands of years. Yet so often, these are not the stories the rest of the world, or often even the rest of Alaska, knows outside of our communities.

Alaska Native Theatre

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"For one, there is a whole other world where we know that we are sovereign. It is in the heart of our languages, embedded in stories and alive in our ceremonies." So true! Thank you for this.