‘Tis the season! For evergreen trees and cookie decorating and singing? Sure! For gifts and colorful lights and snowmen? Absolutely! But most importantly, ‘tis the season for your holiday theatre favorite.
That’s right! This year, the multi-part virtual production of A Tlingit Christmas Carol by Vera Starbard is back at Perseverance Theatre, and we couldn’t be more excited. To celebrate the return of this beautiful and hilarious show, I sat down for a Zoom session with Tlingit and Dena’ina playwright Vera Starbard to talk about her work in theatre, opera, television, and more.
Vera Starbard is not only Perseverance Theatre’s Playwright-in-Residence, but is also an accomplished writer across many genres, platforms, and styles. She serves as Editor of First Alaskans Magazine, writes for the Peabody Award-winning PBS show Molly of Denali, and has won numerous awards including the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award and Alaska Literary Award. And although she wasn’t able to tell me any details, she did (cryptically) mention projects with Netflix and Disney, so keep an eye on your streaming platforms!
Yes, she’s one of the busiest people I know. But how did she become a writer in the first place? Why was she drawn to storytelling and how did her plays end up onstage?
“I have always known I was going to be a writer since I was in kindergarten. That was never a question,” Starbard said when I asked her about her writing journey. “When I was 14, the freshmen weren’t allowed to join the high school newspaper, but my English teacher made an exception. And I had such a big head about it! Like ‘Wow my writing is amazing, genius, I’m going to be published by 15!’”
But when she turned in her first article to the newspaper’s editor, it was handed back to her covered in a sea of red.
“It was stomach dropping! I’d never had anything I’d ever written marked up like that,” continued Vera. “But that’s part of what got me hooked, too. This could be better and someone knows how to make it better and they can show me how!”
Writing for the school newspaper put Vera on the path of journalism. She enjoyed the pressure and the challenge of it, and saw firsthand the kind of power that writing can have. Some of her pieces even resulted in real changes in school policy!
Fast forward past high school graduation and Starbard held writing and editing jobs from age 18 on. She was always doing some form of writing professionally, and she still made sure she could work on creative writing in her spare time, primarily crafting short stories until 2009. That was when she was awarded the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award.
This financial support allowed her to take a full month off to travel and finish her novel Devilfish Sleeps. Does that sound familiar? If you saw Perseverance Theatre’s production of Devilfish back in 2019, then it should ring some bells… Yes, that was another Vera Starbard original!
But when she finished her novel and took a step back to look at it, she realized that she wasn’t as excited about her dialogue as she hoped to be, and wanted the opportunity to improve it. This led her to the Alaska Native Playwrights Project, a program seeking established Alaska Native writers in order to teach them how to write play scripts.
“I really took that as an exercise in how to write dialogue,” Vera explained. “That would be it. I would write this one play as an exercise and never write another script ever.”
Famous last words! She spent that first year, under the mentorship of acclaimed playwright Larissa FastHorse, writing Our Voices Will Be Heard, and though she wasn’t immediately hooked on playwriting, it was the first workshop for this piece that gave her the theatre bug.
“It was seeing what the director and the actors did with it. That’s what got me hooked!” Starbard emphasized. “They took what I wrote and made it so much better and that’s what put me onto that kind of collaboration.”
It was from there that Vera found her way to Perseverance Theatre.
“Perseverance was the first theatre to produce my play, and I don’t know if I would have a playwriting career if they hadn’t wanted to,” said Starbard. “For 25 years I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do, and sort of formed my life around that, and I think it was really good for me to get knocked off that track and show me that there’s this whole other arena that I can go into. And some of that was I did not see Alaska Native women writing plays or writing television shows and there’s just no model for that. I did have Alaska Native books. There were very few of them, but that part I could hold and see and feel and look at. But I’d never imagined a TV career because there was no one that looked like me or spoke like me on television.”
And this brings me to the wonderful and innovative work that Vera has done in telling Alaska Native stories onstage, onscreen, and on paper. For instance, A Tlingit Christmas Carol takes this “classic” story and brings it to modern Southeast Alaska.
“I’ve always loved the story of A Christmas Carol,” Vera said when I asked her about why she chose to adapt this piece. “The point of an adaptation from someone of a different gender and different culture is to see it from a different perspective. My focus was on Scrooge and how he was not sharing his wealth.”
Vera then taught me that this focus emerged from the strong Tlingit value of sharing your wealth. In Tlingit culture, there is no such thing as private property. Rather, there’s clan property, and it’s something you share with the entire clan. If your clan and your family aren’t doing well then you’re not doing well, and you need to make sure everyone’s clothed and fed and taken care of.
“That was a really strong message from my dad,” Vera explained. “He told me, ‘If you’re not doing well, then we’re not doing well.’ It’s not about who has the most wealth so much as making sure the resources are taking care of everyone. And that always struck me with the story. Scrooge was hoarding this thing that belonged to the community, and the fact that at the end, he starts giving it to the community… that was the point to me.”
And her sense of community and these strong Tlingit values ring true when you watch the play for yourself. But what also sticks with you is the comedy.
“If you read the book, the original Dickens version, it’s hilarious! It’s a really funny story almost entirely because of the author’s narration of events and commentary,” said Vera. “Funnily enough, the adaptations that carry the spirit of the Dickens version the most are things like Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Those are the ones that find that voice again and find the funny in it. I really wanted to find the funny in the story, and a lot of that comes in the form of the Spirit of Christmas Present.”
A Tlingit Christmas Carol is a virtual play in five parts, or staves, and borrows that form from the original Dickens text. It is also filled with “Tlingit-ized” versions of Christmas carols crafted by Starbard and Alaska Native composer and performer Ed Littfield. Trust me, it’s a lot of fun to sing along!
And yes, this is a virtual production. When the pandemic hit and suddenly we found ourselves in turmoil, the theatre world was hit especially hard.
“I, like many theatre people, watched six months worth of scheduling just disappear over the course of three days, and this was our answer to both having something at Perseverance, and also having something for actors and directors and musicians while everyone was out of work,” Vera reflected. “And just a gift to the community! We wanted to give people some laughs and Christmas songs while a majority of the world couldn’t be together.”
To enjoy A Tlingit Christmas Carol, visit ptalaska.org/atcc now through January 8, 2022. You can find an album of the “Tlingit-ized” Christmas carols at https://tlingitchristmascarol.bandcamp.com/releases and companion coloring books created by Vera and her father Don Starbard are available for purchase using the link below.