In describing performing artist Bethany Bereman’s creative gifts, fellow artists frequently drew on images of fire and light.
“The gift she brought was this feeling of energy zooming off her, like lightning,” said Theater in the Rough’s Aaron Elmore. “She was not a pillar, she was more like a fire, a rocket, going and doing and adventuring and singing and living.”
“She had a ton of presence,” said Perseverance Theatre’s Art Rotch. “She was very beautiful on stage, a luminous performer.”
“She was a firecracker,” said friend and fellow artist Maria Gladziszewski.
Bereman, an actor, singer, dancer and teacher, spent more than 20 years in Juneau before moving to Hawaii in 2007 with her husband John Hickey and daughter Susu. Last month, at age 50, she died of ovarian cancer. As friends, colleagues and former students mourn her loss, their stories about her influence make it clear that her artistic energy remains active in the community, in part through their absorption of her work. It radiates from Bradley Johnson’s confidence, Giselle Stone’s soulful voice and Ryan Conarro’s full-hearted approach to teaching theater. From those sources and many others, it keeps moving outward.
Bereman was both a performer and a teacher. In both capacities, peers say she constantly pushed herself and those around her to give more than they thought possible.
“She just had boundless energy,” said Perseverance Theatre’s Shona Strauser. “She put that kind of energy into every single project she ever did.”
Beginning in 1999, Bereman headed up the JDHS Theater Department, a position she held for eight years. During that time, she invited a steady stream of visiting artists to help her expand her students’ range of experiences.
“A lot of people will be super protective of their programs, she actually embraced collaboration like nobody else,” Strauser said. “She wanted her students to have the most breadth possible in training.”
Strauser was among those who worked with Bereman in her classroom, and said what most impressed her about Bereman’s approach was her ability to be fully focused on the class in front of her.
“Whereas a lot of people can bring in baggage to a room and load down the space with things that are happening in other areas of their life, she was always a present artist,” Strauser said. “She was always there with the students, ready to give the best she could give at all times. It takes a lot of work to do that.”
Strauser credits Bereman with giving her her start in Juneau theater. Though Strauser had lots of experience as a teaching artist, having worked for years with the Seattle Repertory Theater, she found it difficult to break in to the local scene. Bereman gave her the chance, hiring her to work on the JDHS production “Reel to Reel” seven years ago, a project that marked the beginning of a long and rewarding relationship.
Ryan Conarro also got his start in teaching theater through Bereman, and says she was a key factor in his decision to stay in Juneau. Now in heavy demand at schools all across the state, Bereman’s influence informs Conarro’s work on a daily basis.
“I am able to use what she taught me every day when I’m working in schools. And with adults too,” he said.
Conarro, who worked with Bereman on four plays at JDHS as a director, said one of her strengths was in showing her students the range of motion and expression that was open to them through modeling techniques. He recalled a rehearsal for “Wizard of Oz,” his first production with her, when lead actor Giselle Stone, as Dorothy, was working on vocals for “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Though Stone’s singing voice was really strong, Bereman encouraged her to go deeper.
“It was just beautiful to watch her draw some real soul out of Giselle,” Conarro said.
He also remembers a rehearsal for “On this Island,” when, during a scene between a mother and father and an adopted girl, Bereman got up on stage to help the actors understand how the characters might move and touch each other as husband and wife.
“It was really like a professional rehearsal and it was also really personal,” he said.
Brett Dillingham, a local storyteller whom Bereman brought in to work with her theater class beginning in 2000, said Bereman was a master at balancing her role as a trusted friend and a respected teacher with her students.
“She just had it,” he said.
He said her class often attracted students who felt out of place in other areas of their life, and that he saw them blossom within the safety of Bereman’s classroom.
“I knew that she was going to do her damndest to touch that child and pull something out of them and make them feel like a worthwhile human being that could do something. I don’t even see that with some great teachers — and I’ve worked with master teachers around the world.”
Judging from comments made by former students, these assessments are not overstated. Some speak of Bereman’s impact as being life-changing.
Bradley Johnson, JDHS class of 2003, first met Bereman as a freshman in her acting class. Over the next four years, she became a huge part of his life, and the person he was most reluctant to leave upon graduation.
“Ms. B. helped mold me into the man I am today,” he said in an email.
“I remember Ms. B. pushed me so hard that I ended up crying, but it turns out that I put on the best performance of my life — and it was all because of her.”
His favorite thing was to get her to laugh.
“When she laughed with her burst of laughter, you knew you had accomplished something amazing. It was the same feeling as receiving your first A or winning the grand prize in something huge.”
Former student Carley Seifert said Bereman’s class “saved my education as a whole.” And Brittany Buell, now in college, said Bereman was the reason she decided to pursue a career in teaching, adding that she will strive in her career to be an inspiration to her students like Bereman was.
Bereman also taught social dance at the high school.
“Bristol Palin was in that class,” Strauser said with a laugh. “The night ‘Dancing With the Stars’ came on I called Bethany to see if she was watching.”
Bereman moved to Juneau in 1985, after graduating from Alaska Pacific University in 1984. She studied acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and went on to receive her master’s degree in theatrical production from Central Washington University in 2004.
In 2006, she met John Hickey, a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard (and, not incidentally, a man who knew how to dance). The two fell in love and married the following year and soon thereafter adopted their daughter Susu, now 4. The family moved to Hawaii in 2007, and then to Bainbridge Island.
During her two decades in Juneau, Bereman was a regular presence on Juneau stages, acting and singing in productions that include Theater in the Rough’s “Henry IV, Part 1,” Juneau Lyric Opera’s “A Little Night Music,” Juneau Douglas Little Theater’s “Quilters,” and Perseverance’s “You Can’t Take it With You,” “The Birds,” “Up” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Her first local role was Lady Lou in the “Lady Lou Review,” a Perseverance summer production based on Robert Service ballads that ran for 10 years beginning in 1985. She blazed the trail for other well-known actresses who took up the part after her, including Marta Lastufka, Theater in the Rough’s Katie Jensen and Joyce Parry Moore.
Perseverance Artistic Director Rotch, who watched her perform in “Up” and worked with her on “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Henry IV,” said he considered her “as good an actor as there is.”
“And her potential was as high as anyone I’ve ever known.”
Bereman was also known for her singing; according to family legend, she was singing “Blue Velvet” while still in her crib.
“She had an amazing voice that was just a joy to hear whenever she sang — whether it was on the beach, on stage, or in a kayak,” Gladziszewski said.
When not performing, singing, dancing or teaching, Bereman worked as a wilderness kayak guide and manager with Alaska Discovery, a realm to which she also brought a boundless energy, Strauser said.
“She was an extreme skier, extreme kayaker, and extreme everything," she said.
“She did nothing half-assed — ever.”
A celebration of Bereman’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.