Fall in Juneau. The closest you can get to living underwater without a scuba mask. Some claim to love it (don't trust them), but most of us find ourselves compelled to revisit the unkillable question, "How did I end up here?"
Luckily, just as fall descends, the arts scene in Juneau heats up, providing us with at least one good reason to be happy we're here. For those who take part, either as performers or audience members, local arts activities help fight off the soporific effects of darkness, wind and water, reconnecting us with our community at a crucial tipping point of introspection and isolation.
Perseverance Theatre, which has been helping locals make it through fall for the past 31 years, opens its 2010-2011 season this Friday with "Circle Mirror Transformation," the first in a series of plays that touches on the idea of how place effects person. Executive Artistic Director Art Rotch said all four mainstage plays, as well as two special productions, involve the idea of transformation, and the way physical location can spur personal change.
"(M)ost of these plays involve a character who went somewhere in order to become something else," he said. "Which I think people in Alaska can really understand. Whether you came here from somewhere else or were born here and went away for some reason and came back ... or if you just go into the wilderness to become someone else, we really can relate to that."
Rotch's personal geographic trail includes a long history with Perseverance, beginning in 1989, and a six-year hiatus in New York City. He returned to Juneau in 2008, and has been at the helm at Perseverance ever since.
Rotch said they don't set out to fulfill a theme when they choose the plays for a season, but usually end up finding connections between them as they go.
"If they're speaking to each other well, there probably is some kind of theme," he said. "If we're listen to the writing, it tells us what the theme is."
"Circle Mirror Transformation," Oct. 8-31
"Circle Mirror Transformation," written by rising star Annie Baker, premiered last fall to glowing reviews on the East Coast, including the New York Times, which called it "absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny," and the Washington Examiner, which described it as "a show that speaks slowly and quietly but says a mouthful." The play received several OBIE awards earlier this year, including one for Best New American play, and was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The Perseverance production marks the play's West Coast debut.
"This is the hot new play for us this year," Rotch said. "It's like 'Boom' was last year and 'Doubt' the year before."
The story line follows four residents of a small town in Vermont who have signed up for a six-week community acting class. Their interactions and the interplay between their public and private selves in a small town is likely to resonate with local audience, Rotch said.
The lead roles are filled by MK MacNaughton, Katrina Hotch, Dawn Kolden and a recent new arrival to town, James Sullivan, in his mainstage debut. John Wilson, an actor and musician who was involved with Perseverance in Molly Smith's days, is also featured in the performance.
Brandon Demery, director of last season's "Leading Ladies" and two other Perseverance plays, directs.
"This Wonderful Life," Dec. 3-26
Starring Ed Christian in the sole acting role, the second play of the season draws on the characters and themes of the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life," bringing George Bailey and the other residents of Bedford Falls together through a single narrator. "This Wonderful Life" had a very short run (one weekend) at Thunder Mountain High School last year; this year's longer run at Perseverance is intended to give more locals a chance to see it.
Shona Strauser, artistic associate and director of education at Perseverance, said she's often wary of one-man shows, but found Christian's performance captivating.
"It's really a showcase of his acting talent. And it's vast," she said.
"It's deep and wide and strong," Rotch added.
Christian, who is also very active with Theatre in the Rough, is a good example of the strength of Juneau's theater scene, Rotch said.
"All that skill that he's acquired - he's learned it here, in Juneau. He's a really a product of the theater circuit here. And that's tremendous. As good as they get."
Terry Cramer directs.
"The Blue Bear," Jan. 14-Feb. 6
The third play of the season is based on the book by local author Lynn Schooler, "The Blue Bear: A True Story of Friendship, Tragedy and Survival in the Alaskan Wilderness." It tells of the journey undertaken by Schooler and Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino to find the elusive blue bear, or glacier bear, along the Southeast coast, focusing in particular on the relationship between the two men as they pursue their goal. Schooler's sister, Luan, adapted her brother's book for the stage with his input, a process that wasn't without difficulties.
"The book is so personal that it took a little bit of convincing and some negotiating (about) how we were going to tell the story, and the story we were trying to tell," Rotch said. "(Lynn) has been tremendously generous."
The play will also integrate Hoshino's photographs through visual projections orchestrated by visiting filmmaker Greg Emetaz and local filmmker Brice Habeger.
"Those guys really know how to tell a story with pictures," Rotch said. "And Lynn's' sister Luan knows how to tell a story with words, and they're trying to have a sort of conversation between the pictures and the words in the same way that the play is about the relationship between these two guys. It's going to be, I think, something new."
"Blue Bear" will feature local actor Ryan Conarro as Schooler and L.A.-based actor Takahiro Yamamoto as Hoshino. Leon Ingulsrud directs.
"The Importance of Being Earnest," March 11-April 12
Oscar Wilde's most famous play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," rounds out the mainstage season. This romantic comedy debuted in 1895 and is known for its dialogue and its satirical look at the seriousness of Victorian life. Wilde himself said that the theme was "that we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality."
The play tells the story of two men who take on false identities in order to escape their regular lives, and plays with the idea of "earnestness" in terms of the men's identities and in their approach to life.
Casting for this play has not yet been finalized. Carolyn Howarth directs.
"Tuesday's with Morrie," Nov. 5-7
Based on a book by Mitch Albom published in 1997, "Tuesday's with Morrie" focuses on the relationship between Albom and his former college professor, Morrie Schwarz. The book was also made into a movie starring Jack Lemmon in 1999.
Like "Wonderful LIfe" and many of the other plays featured this season, "Morrie" is something of an actor's piece, Rotch said.
"You do 'Tuesdays with Morrie' when you have a great Morrie, and Dick Reichman is the actor," Rotch said.
He'd seen Reichman's performance at Cyrano's Theatre Company in Anchorage, and knew he wanted to give local theater-goers a chance as well.
"His performance was absolutely extraordinary," Rotch said, "the best of his career."
The play also stars Patrick Killoran as Albom, and involves the artistic team from Cyrano's, including Sandy Harper as artistic director and Bernie Blaine as director.
"[title of show]," dates TBA
"[title of show]" will also have an abbreviated run on the mainstage this season. This play is a collaborative project with Generator Theater Company, formally known as Thunder Mountain Theater Project, led by former Juneau resident and Perseverance member Flordelino Lagundino.
"It's a very wonderful, funny look at the creative process and why we live to make art, or whatever it is that we do," Rotch said.
The story involves two writers, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, who enter a contest to write a musical, and go on to enjoy real-life success both on and off-Broadway with the play they've written about their play.
"It circles back on itself in a really interesting way," Rotch said. "It's ultimately a play about the friendship between these two writers and the women that helped them create their play."
In keeping with the theme of transition, the play also draws on the transformative power of creative relationships.
"It a little bit references 'Circle Mirror,' which is also a play about process and the relationships that we form when we create together," Rotch said.
The Second Stage at Perseverance will also be up and running soon, steered this season by Frank and Stacey Katasse. Strauser said Perseverance hopes to encourage more Alaska-based writers and performers through Second Stage, as well as include play and poetry readings, improvisational work and workshops.
For more information about Perseverance Theatre, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org.