Perseverance Theatre’s production of “The Blue Bear,” which opens Jan. 15, is based on a memoir written by Juneau wilderness guide and local author Lynn Schooler. Adapted for the stage by the author’s sister, Luan Schooler, the story focuses on the friendship between Schooler and Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino, and the two men’s intersections with water, wind and the wild of Southeast Alaska as they search for a rare “glacier” bear whose fur appears blue. Transforming words on a page into a play for the stage is complicated. I decided to check out the process at Perseverance last Thursday afternoon by dropping in on a rehearsal.
Rusty-haired New York director Leon Ingulsrud welcomes me, then returns to a technology task causing him some frustration. His laptop was failing to send digital files to two projectors aimed toward angled scrims hanging along a wall.
“I don’t understand why this isn’t working,” he utters quietly.
After the glitch is solved, amazingly detailed photographs of Southeast Alaska’s natural wonders captured by Hoshino appear upstage. Making sure the famous photographer’s images support rather than steal the story is one of the unusual challenges of this production.
The rehearsal takes place in very small room that looks more like a storage area, cluttered with stacks of chairs, a metal rolling cart topped by a photocopy machine, and a random Sunkist box on the floor labeled “scarves” that held a first-aid kit. A wooden table in front of the awkward Jenga-like piles of metal chairs hosts a desktop monitor, a laptop, and cables that snake out to the projectors. One clear path through the randomness leads to survival appliances: a coffeemaker, microwave and a hot pot. Newcomers to the space make the error of using the microwave when the projector and computers are on, causing a blackout. Those with Perseverance experience know which circuit breaker to trip. Those putting this show together accept the limitations of the tiny room with aplomb and move on.
Strips of colored tape on the black rehearsal room floor indicate what will be a rise on the final set, suggesting the bow of a boat, I believe. Actors flip a square of paper taped to the floor, practicing the action of opening or closing a door leading down into an imaginary hold of the boat. Practice on the actual set will be limited to a day or two before performing for audiences. This is the work actors do, rehearsing in “nothingness,” flatness, blackness, relying on their imaginations to fill in where they are inside of the story as they practice what their characters are doing.
This is a polishing rehearsal, a phase in the process when actors and the director work out the details, the subtle choices — turning away here, picking up a prop there. Lines are memorized, blocking is almost set, and stage business is in its final development. The two actors in the show, teaching artist Ryan Conarro playing Schooler and Japanese native Takahiro Yamamoto playing Hoshino, were introduced to the script this past summer when the playwright and director met for a reading. A new draft was presented to actors for December rehearsals. A run-through before the holiday break proved too long, so cuts were made. Now actors are bumping into the cuts and figuring out new choices.
Ingulsrud gently guides his actors with encouraging words: “I am watching you explore that moment which is giving me more ideas to share with you. The storm is still in you on that line….Let’s do the storm again and look for other adjustments.”
Working on a new script offers cast and crew unique challenges as changes in words trigger changes on stage. Any change an actor makes can cause modifications in timing, music, prop placement, lighting and images. As opening night draws near, actors and director are making specific choices so the many dimensions of the relationship between the guide and photographer are illuminated. With the playwright and author present, there is added pressure to get the story right. Plays are creations, not duplications of reality.
From my brief observation of the page-to-stage process at Perseverance, I am very excited to see all the pieces of this artistic creation in place.
Further insights into the play-making process will be provided by author Lynn Schooler and playwright Luan Schooler during the first lecture of the Spring 2011 Sound and Motion Arts at Egan series. The lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7, in the Egan Lecture Hall on the UAS campus. The title of the evening’s free lecture is “Transformations of The Blue Bear: Wilderness and Friendship from Page to Stage.”