This March, Perseverance Theatre and Sealaska Heritage Institute invited local playwright Merry Ellefson to adapt the Native story "The Woman Who Married The Bear" for its Summer Theatre Arts Rendezvous children's program.
Ellefson had never adapted a play before, nor was she very familiar with the mores and history of Tlingit culture.
"My first response was, 'Oh my god, we need 15 months,' " said Ellefson, a longtime collaborator with Perseverance and an active writer with many community groups.
"It's been a fulfilling and challenging journey," she said. "I've lived here for 15 years now, and I've done a lot of projects, and I've learned so much more about my home from working on this."
Ellefson read 17 versions of "The Woman," everything from Tlingit to Inland Tlingit to Athabascan to Tagish, before beginning her adaptation.
Her play is inspired by a version from poet Tom Peters and informed and advised by Juneau's Ernestine Hayes, who included her version in her master's of fine arts thesis when she received a degree from the University of Alaska Southeast in 2003.
"My experience in several ways was similar to the woman who married the bear," said Hayes, a grant specialist for Sealaska Heritage and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. "I went away from Juneau, and I was gone for a long time, and I lived among strangers and when I came back I felt like a stranger. I just feel a lot of those same emotions."
"It's about love, it's about loss, it's about choice and consequences," Ellefson said. "It was a backdrop to try to step into a culture, and I was able to step in because of Rosita Worl (at Sealaska) and Ernestine and Ishmael Hope of Perseverance. They were really guiding me toward meeting the right people and learning more about cultural mores and cultural history."
"The Woman Who Married The Bear," directed by Shona Strauser, plays at 7 p.m. Saturday at the UAS Noyes Pavilion. The other two STAR plays also conclude this weekend. "The Taming of The Shrew" shows at 7 p.m. today, and "Island Adrift" runs at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets are $5 for adults, free for kids under 18.
"When I read Merry's final version I knew that it was an excellent work, and I was very impressed by her craft," Hayes said. "And then when I saw it brought to life by the students, I was just so moved by their talent and their obvious dedication."
The story begins with a teenage woman hiking through the woods, picking berries with her family. She ends up with her sisters on a forest path, and they come to a pile of bear scat.
One sister walks around the mound. The woman tries to step over it, and slips in it, disrespecting the bear and disrupting the harmony of the forest.
A man appears, the bear in human form, and whisks her away into his world. Later, her brothers set out to find her and bring her back to the family.
"There's a lot of really sad and violent things that happen as she tries to balance, 'Do I stay with my husband, or do I go back with my family?' " Ellefson said. "The bear husband acts very nobly and makes the decision for her. That's when she learns she can never go back."
Ellefson worked through eight drafts of the adaptation with Strauser, Hayes and David Katzeek of Sealaska.
"It's not like I was trying to figure out my story," Ellefson said. "I was trying to understand a story that's been told again and again for a variety of different reasons. I really wanted to honor all these storytellers. I know all their voices are in this piece, and I feel good about that."
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