‘Awareness of local history’: Seeking stories of the Willoughby District

In March 2018, five to six people will take the stage at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center to share their stories about the building and the land it rests on. One of them could be you.


Founded by current artistic director Ping Chong, Ping Chong + Company is a theater group that explores “the intersections of race, culture, history, art, media and technology in the modern world,” according to its website. It’s bringing a series called “Undesirable Elements” to Juneau, currently under the name “Juneau Histories Theater Project.” This series is “community-specific interview-based theater works examining issues of culture and identity of individuals who are outsiders within their mainstream community.” For the project, members of the community will share their stories live on stage.

Playwright and actor Frank Kaash Katasse, theater-maker Ryan Conarro and Chong, who are leading the project, will be focusing on stories around two elements of Juneau’s history. The first is the current Juneau Arts & Culture Center, which once served as the National Guard Armory and will soon be replaced with a new JACC.

The second element is the Willoughby District’s history at the site of the Juneau Indian Village.

“When we first moved into this building, we had a memory book, unfortunately gone now, in which people wrote their memories of this building — people who joined the Guard here, had their first dance here, played basketball here. It is clear to me that this building has been special in many people’s lives, and I look forward to this project helping us memorialize that history as we look to taking it (the building) down,” Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Executive Director Nancy DeCherney said.

The project is being co-produced and presented by the JAHC. It’s DeCherney’s hope that the history and stories of the current JACC will be incorporated into the design of the new building. The building, she said, “will be a community center from everyone from all backgrounds in Juneau” only once “we hear and consider everyone’s stories.”

Conarro, who is Ping Chong + Company’s Artistic Collaborator in Residence and Community Projects Associate, (he refers to himself as a theater-maker since his role blurs between a playwright, performer and director) did some exploratory interviews for the Juneau Histories Theater Project in the summer of 2014. Conarro has been involved in the Juneau art scene since 2003, working with Perseverance Theatre and other groups, as well as teaching throughout the state.

Connaro, Katasse and Chong will interview community members who are interested in sharing their stories.

“The goal, the intention of the series is to make a space for voices that might not be frequently heard in a community, and in this case, giving people an awareness of local history in the community,” Conarro said. “One hallmark of any project in the Undesirable Series that this piece will share is, is that it is the participants, ‘real people,’ telling their stories onstage who are the performers.”

The company is accepting applications to be a part of the project through Jan. 10, 2018. Those interested can pick up a questionnaire from the JACC or email Conarro and Katasse at communityprojects@pingchong.org. The team will interview chosen applicants to get to know them better and determine if they are the right fit for the project. Then they’ll choose five or six applicants to participate in the project.

“So we’re just going to get to know people and it’s really going to be an exciting moment of discovery for us (to find out) ‘what is the project going to become?’” Conarro said. “We’ll be looking for a diverse range of stories and representations, so it may be that we meet several people and have the opportunity to put together an ensemble of collaborating participants who represent different ages, different genders, different cultural and ethnic and racial backgrounds that all intersect with the old Indian Village of the Willoughby District.”

The structure of the performance is simple and accessible for those not familiar with being onstage, Conarro said. Each performer will have a music stand with their script on hand, so they won’t have to memorize anything. Each will also have a chair and microphone. The team will work with the performers on how to tell their stories in conjunction with the stories of others, and work with them on rhythm, pacing and other aspects of successful storytelling.

Of the current JACC building, he said “I think the building itself is a really powerful container for those memories (arts events, memorials and more) for a lot of us in Juneau.”

“…I represent an example of a Juneau person who has certainly spent a lot of time going up and down Willoughby Avenue…not knowing the history of the neighborhood I was walking through,” Conarro said — though, he added, that’s changed.

Katasse, Conarro and Chong aim for this project to have the same effect on those who see it.

• Clara Miller is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at clara.miller@capweek.com.


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