Mixing legends for stage and screen

Juneau writer David Hunsaker weaves myths and classics into his play and movie scripts

Posted: Friday, September 01, 2000

The promise of adventure might have brought him to Alaska, but it's the stories and the myths of the Last Frontier that shaped Dave Hunsaker and his career as a writer.

"I had heard a lot about Alaska and wanted to see it, but I was really interested in folklore, collecting folklore," said Hunsaker from his home in Juneau.

Almost three decades after moving to Alaska, Hunsaker not only collects folklore, he's become a storyteller who mixes cultures and myths for stage and screen.

With more than a dozen screenplays sold and several theatrical adaptations and plays produced locally and elsewhere, the prolific writer has created a signature style.

"He's an extremely bright guy with an uncanny sense of storytelling," said Bill Spear, a local artist and a friend of Hunsaker's for 15 years. "He thinks in storytelling terms in his head. It's the basic core of who he is."

When Hunsaker moved to Alaska in 1972, he taught and edited school publications in the Aleutians and in a small Athabascan village in Cook Inlet.

"I was just totally immersed in village life. It was great," he said.

Eventually, his travels led him to Juneau where he and his wife settled out Glacier Highway, where they have lived for 20 years. Along with his literary work, he plays the bagpipes.

His interest in storytelling led to writing plays and directing productions for the Perseverance Theatre. In the early 1980s, after winning first prize in a Perseverance contest, the playwright won a grant to research for a play entitled "Yup'ik Antigone," a story that combines elements of Sophocles' tragedy with Yup'ik legend.

As outlined in the grant, Hunsaker moved to Toksook Bay and listened to the 500 or so villagers as they shared their stories.

"It was a just an amazing experience. It was a very traditional place and music and dance were still very much alive," said Hunsaker. "The cycles of stories were so vivid, visual and action-filled."

"Yup'ik Antigone" opened at the Perseverance and went on tour in the Lower 48 and Europe. It eventually went to New York and was showcased at the avant-garde theater company La Mama.

"It was kind of amazing because the play was performed entirely in Yup'ik by Yup'ik performers. They performed so beautifully in their own language, we just provided the audience with a short synopsis and minor narration," Hunsaker said.

The success translated into screenwriting opportunities for the writer. In the mid-1980s, before Robert Redford's Sundance Institute became the success it is today, Hunsaker's screenplay "Winter Warrior" was accepted into its summer workshop program.

Over the next 15 years, Hunsaker sold several screenplays to studios and production companies. But, like many other successful screenwriters, his stories have yet to make the big screen.

"I heard that the ratio is one out of every 17 projects bought by the studios actually get produced," said the writer, who taught himself how to format a screenplay from books.

Despite his ties to Hollywood, Hunsaker remained in Alaska and went on to become the artistic director of the now-defunct Naa Kahidi Theatre.

"He was just awesome to work with," said Lonna Stevens, a former member of the Native theater group. "I learned so much about mixing spirit and artistic vision from him. I'm continually amazed at his ability to capture the essence of every culture."

After 10 years, Hunsaker stepped down from his post at the Naa Kahidi Theatre. Since then, he has written several plays that combine elements and characters from different cultures.

"The myths and legends are just the best yarns. I continually see the truths in them and I'm fascinated with the universality of them," he said.

Two of Hunsaker's screenplays are on the big screen in cooperation with Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation. One, a documentary that plays at the Mount Roberts Tram's Chilkat Theater, introduces thousands of tourists to Tlingit culture every summer. The other, "The Eye of an Eagle," is a fictitious story based on legend and will open at Goldbelt's new Immersivision theater in Ketchikan next summer.

"He has a talent for taking legends and mythology and bringing them to an audience in an earthy and accessible way. He makes the stories come alive and makes them entertaining," said Susan Bell, Goldbelt's vice president of tourism.

"People have been so generous in sharing their culture with me. It's been just incredible. The Native culture has been the source for a lot of my work," said Hunsaker, a Tlingit family adoptee.

"I just love to monkey around with world mythology and the simple pleasures of storytelling," he added. "Whether I'm walking in the woods, in my kayak, or with my friends - this place just continues to feed me."

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