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The world premiere of a Perseverance Theatre production is a big deal under any circumstances, but Friday’s opening of “The Blue Bear” seems particularly exciting.
For one thing, the script is based on a book by local author Lynn Schooler. Artistic Director Art Rotch said there are probably only a half-dozen examples of the theater adapting a book directly into a play, and most of those texts have been classics such as “Moby Dick” and “Alice in Wonderland.” In this case, Schooler is not only the author, he is also one of two main characters on stage.
For another, the landscape of Southeast — our woods and waterways — figures prominently in the story as a tangible presence, and provides the catalyst for the relationship between the two main characters, Schooler and his friend, famous Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino.
The story offers a window into how the two men were able to channel their deep connection to the wild Alaskan landscape into life-sustaining, creative energy — and how that passion for the land also provided the beginnings of the intimate understanding and bond that developed between them.
The play isn’t a dramatization of Schooler’s book but a re-visioning of it in a new medium, one which condenses the story down to its core — the two men’s friendship — while at the same time expanding the piece in a new direction, perhaps most notably through the addition of Hoshino’s photographs.
Art Rotch, artistic director at Perseverance, said he’d been thinking about trying to stage this play for years, and from the beginning knew he wanted to incorporate Hoshino’s images.
“(In the play) you have Michio’s work, through his photography, represented, and Lynn’s work, obviously, through his words, and in that way the two guys that the play is about — their product, the things they made —are a part of the production.”
Rotch first suggested adapting “The Blue Bear” for the stage while he was applying for the position of artistic director at Perseverance in the fall of 2007. He had previously worked for many years with the local theater company, beginning in 1989 with Molly Smith, and had recently returned from a few years in New York City. In thinking about works that would help commemorate Alaska’s 50th anniversary, which coincided with Perseverance’s 30th, he suggested two Alaskan stories — “The Firecracker Boys,” by Fairbanks author Dan O’Neill, and Schooler’s “The Blue Bear.”
Once he got the job, he took up the first thread. The O’Neill book didn’t pan out, but was replaced by Dave Hunsaker’s “Battles of Fire and Water,” a play based on “Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804” by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer and Lydia Black.
The Schooler book was next, and when Rotch started building a team, a few names came to mind immediately. New York-based director Leon Ingulsrud was one of them. Ingulsrud, born in Japan, had previously worked with Perseverance on a couple of productions (“Short Stories” in 1999 and “Moby Dick” in 2001).
Ingulsrud did not take much convincing. He had always been intrigued with Alaska, and has a deep fascination with the interplay between man and the wilderness.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about this in the abstract, and it is one of the reasons why I’m fascinated by ‘Moby Dick,’ — what is our relationship to the natural world?”
In Japanese, he said, there is no word for “nature,” the term is instead borrowed from the Chinese. The indigenous Japanese didn’t have a sense of their separation from nature, he said, in a way that is perhaps similar to the Tlingit culture’s understanding of their humanity as being intermingled with the land and other creatures.
“I’m very aware of myself as a European, as somebody who grew up with a Christian/Greek philosophical separation between the body and the spirit, between nature and humanity. And the more I go into this stuff the more I realize these more ancient peoples, like the Japanese indigenous people and the indigenous people here, they didn’t have these distinctions.”
Though intellectually prepared to delve into the story, Ingulsrud didn’t feel he had the emotional connection to the area he wanted. So, this past summer, he participated in an artist-in-residency program with Voices of the Wilderness in Tracy Arm, spending a week in some of the same locations that Schooler and Hoshino traveled together – an experience he describes as “amazing.” When he returned from Holkham Bay and saw Schooler for the first time, the author pulled him into a corner, eager to find out how it went.
“It made him so happy that I had liked it,” Ingulsrud said. “It was like I had met a friend of his. He’s an intimating guy, in certain ways — he knows his stuff and doesn’t suffer fools easily — but he was childlike in his pleasure and joy of sharing that.”
Ingulsrud also said he was drawn to the book for its serious subject matter.
“Art likes to tell the story about a day in New York very early on when we were working on this project, and I turned to him and said, ‘I like this because it’s all about death and mortality,’ and it’s true — I have trouble working on things that don’t involve that,” he said.
In the book, there are three deaths, each of which occurs in a very different way; Ingulsrud was particularly intrigued by the different circumstances of each of those deaths, and our responses to them.
“I can spend the rest of my life inside that triangle,” he said.
Though the book touches on serious and often existential themes — human cruelty, isolation, and lack of faith — at its core it’s about how Schooler regains trust in the world through his relationship with Hoshino, and how Hoshino is able to reconnect Schooler to ideas of regeneration and renewal, even after he is gone.
Rotch felt it was important that the theater tell the same story Schooler wanted to tell in his book.
“I asked Lynn, ‘Can you tell me in one sentence what you think the book is about?’ And he said ‘Yeah, it’s about a guy that learns how to trust,’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly the story we want to tell.’”
With Ingulsrud on board, Rotch moved on to finding an adapter for the script. Again, he knew who he wanted, but his top choice, Schooler’s sister, Luan Schooler, was reluctant to get involved,
After unsuccessfully pursuing other playwrights, Rotch ultimately came back to Luan to make another attempt to convince her. And this time she said yes.
“I think Lynn may have twisted her arm,” Rotch said.
Given the highly personal nature of the book, having Luan write the script also helped ease Lynn Schooler’s worries about how it would come out, Rotch said. (See “Page to Stage” at right.)
Luan Schooler had previously worked with Perseverance on other productions, including “The Faraway Nearby,” “Mineola Twins,” and “Wonderland.”
The third artist Rotch brought in early was Greg Emetaz, a filmmaker also based in New York with whom Rotch had attended graduate school.
Emetaz, originally from Vancouver, Wash., said as soon as he saw the photographs online, he knew he wanted to do the project.
“(Hoshino) is so incredible it’s almost unreal,” Emetaz said.
Though Hoshino was new to Southeast when he began traveling around the area with Schooler, he was not new to Alaska, having first arrived in 1972 when he was 19. A few years later, after graduation he came back and stayed, making his home base in Fairbanks. Over the course of the next two decades, he photographed the wild places of Alaska, capturing scenes with such incredible timing and composition that Emetaz said they almost look staged.
“He had almost a painter’s patience and vision,” he said.
Emetaz said modern technology has enabled photographers to get shot after shot, increasing their chances of capturing a scene at the right time, but that Hoshino, working with film, had just one chance to get it right. One of his famous shots of a bear eye-to-eye with a salmon has now been replicated countless times, but when Hoshino took it, the process was much more difficult and time-consuming.
“He’s the one who first captured those things, and had the patience to wait for them. Now you just take a zillion rapid-fire photos and maybe get it, but then you just had one chance to get it.”
One of the major challenges for Emetaz and his assistant, local filmmaker Brice Habeger, in creating visuals for the play was figuring out how to integrate these powerful works into the story without letting them claim all the attention.
“They just can’t be background, they aren’t background,” he said. “In fact, they’re so stunning and they’re so composed that they don’t operate that way. If you show them in their full glory they’d totally upstage anything that’s happening on stage. And so we’re treating them like they’re their own element.”
There are pauses in the action when Hoshino’s photographs appear, giving the audience the space to appreciate what they’re seeing.
“There’s this moment to realize what he saw — what no one else could see,” he said.
In addition to Hoshino’s photographs, Emetaz and Habeger also compiled more abstract video of the landscape that serves more as background imagery.
Habeger was an invaluable part of this process, Emetaz said.
“He’s incredible competent, and shot beautiful stuff,” he said. “He was able to find a microscope apparatus so he could shoot through a microscope… It gives us another interesting abstract perspective.”
The pair also collected video from outside sources, including KTOO and Schooler himself
Emetaz said the video imagery is intended to be suggestive rather than completely transparent.
“When you’re doing projections for theater, it has to only spark the imagination, not completely fill in the blanks.”
And what about the mysterious blue bear himself? Emetaz wasn’t sure if he’d make an appearance, noting that the team refers to the animal as the story’s MacGuffin — a term used by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a plot element that might not be as important as it appears.
“You think it’s a story about this epic adventure to find this bear, but its really about one person finally regaining trust in people and opening himself up after several devastating events that would make anyone feel that way.”
In spite of the personal nature of the work, and the specific landscape of the projections, Emetaz thinks the play would easily translate in other communities outside of Alaska.
“Usually when you find something insanely personal, as long as you don’t shroud it in confusion, as long as you leave an access point for people, I feel like that’s the kind of thing that everyone can relate to. The most personal is always the most universal.”
Once Rotch had Ingulsrud, Luan Schooler and Emetaz in place, he was able to step back from and take up another role, that of lighting designer. His wife, Akiko Nishijima Rotch, designed the set. The rest of the creative team includes local actor Ryan Conarro as Lynn Schooler, Los-Angeles based Japanese actor Takahiro Yamamoto as Hoshino, musician Bryan Johnson, stage manager Kristin Garot, props master Ulu Mills, sound designer Lucy Peckham, costume designer Valerie Snyder, and assistant directors Maja-stina Wang and Hannah Wolf.
Rotch said he has been very happy with the creative process.
“Get really talented people and give them something that they’re excited about, then stay out of their way — that’s the secret to my job and that really worked with this group.”
Bringing “The Blue Bear” to the stage is part of the larger mission of the theater, he said, in telling uniquely Alaskan stories. He points to a passage in “The Blue Bear” where Hoshino encourages Schooler to turn his deep connection to the landscape around Holkham Bay into a book, saying it’s his responsibility to share his knowledge and unique perspective of the place with the rest of world.
Schooler, paraphrasing Hoshino’s words, writes:
“If you love a place for the things that it gives you (in this case the peace I always found in Holkham Bay), you have a responsibility to share its beauty with others, and in doing so, perhaps bring others to love it and lend something to its care.”
Rotch sees a similar responsibility in the theater’s work.
“If you think about a theater, and why we do this kind of work, especially, Alaska is a place where there are stories and characters, and if we don’t capture those stories and tell them through what our skills are, they’ll just never be told in that way. And something of the place will be lost. And that would be sort of tragic.”