Juneau Empire – Perseverance brings plays downtown

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Perseverance Theatre has jumped the channel for the summer, setting up temporary shop in the Juneau Arts & Culture Center to stage Summerfest, a six-week, three-play project that kicks off Saturday.

It’s new territory for the Douglas-based theater in more ways than one, marking an expansion of the theater’s usual September-to-May season, and an experiment in repertory programming — three plays will run in continuous rotation from June 28 through Aug. 6, often back to back. Executive artistic director Art Rotch said by making Perseverance plays accessible to a downtown crowd during Juneau’s busiest season, and giving people lots of performance options, the theater hopes to reach the broadest possible audience, from locals and their summer house guests to single-day tourists off the ships.

“Really, anyone who is in town for that day, that likes theater, that’s who it’s for,” Rotch said. “It would be great to bring different types of people together who aren’t often in the same room together.”

The theater has produced plays in the summer before, including the “Lady Lou Revue” and a 2010 production written by Ishmael Hope called “Cedar House,” but those plays were specifically geared toward summer tourists, whereas Summerfest is for everyone.

“It’s for locals, it’s for visiting friends and family, and it’s for tourists as well,” said Bostin Christopher, Summerfest producer. “It’s the professional theater that Juneau is used to seeing in the fall and spring, but we’re doing it in the summer.”

The Summerfest lineup includes two original Alaskan stories, “The Blue Bear” and “Warriors,” and a third play called “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

“The Blue Bear” debuted on the Perseverance stage in January 2011. Based on Juneau author Lynn Schooler’s memoir of his friendship with Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino, and set against a backdrop of Hoshino’s images of Southeast Alaska, the play is about the two men’s connection to each other and to this particular landscape. The Summerfest production brings back original actors Takahiro Yamamoto as Hoshino, and Ryan Conarro as Schooler, as well as members of the production team. The director is Hannah Wolf, who built on original direction by Leon Ingulsrud.

Christopher said “Blue Bear” was a natural choice for Summerfest.

“There’s a lot of great things about that play that say, ‘This is Perseverance Theatre,’” he said. “It really worked well in Anchorage to introduce us there and I think it’s a great thing to have as a start off for this summer festival, as well.”

“Warriors” is also an Alaskan play, written and directed by Dave Hunsaker with original music by Ed Littlefield. It focuses on Alaska Natives in war at different times in history, switching back and forth between two young men in Castner’s Cutthroats in WWII, and two female army soldiers based in Baghdad in 2003. The production stars Tlingit actor Charles McKenry of Juneau, Yup’ik actor Corey Joseph of Kwigillingok, Tlingit actor Katrina Hotch of Klukwan, Inupiaq actor Mary Lou Rock of Shaktoolik, and Japanese-American actor Takahiro Yamamoto, originally of Shizuoka, Japan. For more on this play, see feature story below.

The third play, Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” was the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play. A comedy, it tells the story of Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia, living a quiet life in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where they grew up, until the return of their movie-star sister, Masha, and her boyfriend, Spike. The cast for this play includes Theatre in the Rough co-founder Katie Jensen as Masha; Perseverance company member Enrique Bravo as her young boyfriend, Spike; and Ben Brown and Patricia Hull as Masha’s siblings, Vanya and Sonia.

Rotch said locals will particularly appreciate seeing these familiar actors in these roles.

“(Jensen and Bravo) are hilarious together,” he said.

Theater geeks will also enjoy all the Chekhov references, Christopher said.

“There’s much reference for those who love Chekhov, but if you don’t know Chekhov, its OK,” he said, adding that the play’s focus on family relationships make it universal in its appeal.

The three plays will be presented multiple times on stage at the JACC, a familiar building which has been transformed for the project into a fully equipped theater, with professional lighting and sound, a raised stage, and risers that can hold at least 120 people. Rotch helped design sets that would facilitate quick turnaround times — a box set (three walls) for “Vanya,” a bare stage for “Warriors,” and something in between for “Blue Bear,” which will be set up much like it was when it debuted in 2011.

Midway through the repertory programming, on July 19 and 20, Perseverance will host their annual ASTI training sessions for theater professionals and students, led by visiting and local artists. Some of those people will also take part in readings of new work, scheduled for the same time, bringing more offerings and energy into the Summerfest mix.

“Over two days we’ll hear five or six plays — that will be a really interesting, intense week,” Christopher said.

By hosting ASTI, Summerfest and readings of new work together around the same time, the theater hopes to foster a kind of creative incubator for theater artists, a chance for people to gather from far and near to swap ideas, experience new work, and be inspired.

“Everybody can cross pollinate and talk about the work, and we can get the locals in and people from out of state,” Christopher said “It’s a great opportunity to have a vibrant community of artists and audience who are talking about new work, what work could be created. So that’s pretty exciting.”

Summerfest has been undertaken in partnership with the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council and with support from the University of Alaska Southeast. Funding for the project came from ArtPlace, a collaboration of national foundations including the Rasmuson Foundation that supports the creation of healthy, vibrant communities by fostering strong art organizations and programs.

“Their vision is what they call ‘creative placemaking’ — using arts, culture, entertainment, that sort of thing to make a community more vital and tapping into the power of art-making to create more livable, more competitive communities, which is a really powerful idea,” Rotch said.

Moving forward, Rotch said Juneau could flourish from this type of creative development in ways that could supplement and compliment our already-stellar reputation as a outdoor destination.

“When I think about places in the world that have world-class natural beauty but also have world-class art of one kind or another, they’re huge destinations,” Rotch said. “We have, obviously, the natural beauty to rival any of those places, or best them, and the makings — with the State Library Archives and Museum, the Soboleff Center, the Willoughby Arts Complex, Perseverance Theater — to say, come here and experience a whole spectrum of really great art, world-class art — and then go to Glacier Bay, or go catch a fish.” He laughed.

Christopher said the idea of fostering Juneau as an arts destination — something like Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which draws more than 100,000 visitors annually — is definitely within the realm of possibility, with all of us working together.

In the meantime, Perseverance has laid out a range of options for Juneau and their guests for the summer, and they’re looking forward to seeing what flies.

“(We thought), ‘Let’s do it all and let’s see what happens, what fits and what doesn’t,” Christopher said.

Know and go

What: Summerfest, a six-week festival of three plays produced by Perseverance Theatre

When: June 28 through Aug. 6 on a rotating schedule

Where: Juneau Arts & Culture Center

Details: www.perseverancetheatre.org.