Perseverance Theatre is one of Juneau's crown jewels, but one of the things that has given the theater its shine has been lost of late: its cultivation of local talent.
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Not only is it unusual for a town of 30,000 people to be able to support a professional theater, it is also remarkable that the theater we have has gained a national reputation for excellence.
Outgoing Artistic Director PJ Paparelli has continued that commitment to excellence in his three years at Perseverance's helm. Shows during Paparelli's tenure have drawn big crowds, and he has brought in top talent from other parts of the country. This week the theater premiers "Yeast Nation," written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, co-writers of "Urinetown," which won three Tony Awards. Kotis and Hollman spent seven weeks in Juneau working on the rock-comedy.
What has been lost in recent years, though, is the local part of Juneau's local theater. For many years, Perseverance has brought in performers and designers from all over the country, sometimes to play particularly challenging roles, sometimes to bring new approaches to the local artistic community.
Under Paparelli, however, the influx of talent from the Lower 48 has dramatically increased. Outside actors have become a much bigger staple of Perseverance, and local artists have been pushed out.
In the past, most visiting performers and designers held workshops or informally trained locals, enriching the Juneau theater community with their expertise and building the local base of talent. Requirements for teaching workshops and providing training were often written into people's contracts. That training has been lost under Paparelli's watch and visitors are coming simply to perform or work on the production at hand, according to board members.
To his credit, Paparelli has been able to offset the extra costs of importing staff members with grants and highly popular shows, according to board members. But the infusion of Outside cast and crew has come at an artistic cost to the community. The foundation of local actors, set designers, costume designers and technicians has eroded.
Paparelli's argument may be that he was bringing the very best he could for the theater. But we should remember that Perseverance won acclaim for many years without the mass injection of Lower 48 talent.
The theater has turned theatrical heads since 1983, when its production of "Yup'ik Antigone" traveled internationally and was performed at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York City, winning accolades in the New York Times. In the mid-1980s, it won, through a highly competitive process, federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998, it premiered Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "How I Learned to Drive," which Vogel wrote while at Perseverance.
Paparelli announced his resignation last month and the Perseverance board has begun its search for a new director. The outgoing artistic director should be commended for his many contributions to Perseverance while he was here.
The theater still needs to bring in some select visitors to handle particularly challenging roles or difficult-to-cast parts, expand skills and infuse the community with new ideas. But as the board reviews candidates, it needs to find out whether the incoming director is interested in cultivating local talent and not in creating a semi-colonial Alaska oasis for his or her theater friends.
The board needs to seek finalists who are interested in creating a nurturing environment for not only visiting artists, but also local talent. It's time to put the community back into this community theater.
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