Meet the Playwright: A Conversation with Vera Starbard Pt. 2

Irene MartinkoBlog, Featured

With the holiday season behind us, you may be wondering, “How can I continue to enjoy Vera Starbard’s incredible work now that A Tlingit Christmas Carol has passed?” Trust me, we’ve all been there. 

But fear not! With a seemingly unending list of exciting projects stacked up on her to-do list, there is no shortage of Vera Starbard writing to enjoy. How lucky are we?!

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Vera (over Zoom) and discussing her upcoming projects and the process of writing for theatre, television, and even opera. Yes, I said opera. Vera Starbard truly does it all. 

For instance, A Tlingit Christmas Carol isn’t Vera’s only adaptation in the works. Her play Native Pride (and Prejudice) is also a modern Indigenous take on a classic. This hilarious retelling of Jane Austen’s famous story is narrated by Raven themself, and dives into the use of blood quantum laws in the United States. Vera masterfully brings this story into modern Alaska, and as you watch the play unfold, you genuinely find yourself forgetting that Jane Austen’s novel didn’t include dance regalia and Alaskan salmon. And of course, she never forgets the humor.

“I think Pride and Prejudice is often taken as this serious love story, but when you read the book, it’s very funny. It’s very snarky humor, and that gets lost in a lot of adaptations,” Vera shared. “It can be very serious because they’ve taken out the author’s voice. I like bringing in the author to sort of commentate and say what we’re all thinking. I like breaking that fourth wall and bringing the audience into the joke.” 

Having read the play myself, I can absolutely confirm that it will make you laugh. And in addition to the comedy, there’s a reason Vera keeps coming back to adaptations.

“I love these books,” Vera explained. “Any adaptation I’ve considered is a book I loved growing up, including A Christmas Carol, including Pride and Prejudice. At the same time, these are all books that were published in a time when Native work was just not being published. There was nobody like me in these publications. Nobody that looked like me or talked like me. I still loved them, because they spoke to me in different ways. For as much as they influenced my childhood, I do look back and see how devoid of Native influence my reading was.” 

As a writer, Vera has been able to use her work to tell stories from that Native perspective that she was missing as a child. And in doing so, she’s making sure that when Indigenous children go to the theatre or turn on their televisions, they are able to see themselves represented. For instance, as a writer for the popular PBS Kids show Molly of Denali, Vera has seen the impact that her work has had firsthand.

“Growing up I could tell you a dozen shows that meant a lot to me that I ran to every time they were on. There were animated movies that I watched over and over again,” she explained. “But I’ve never ever once seen anyone that looked like me or talked like me or did anything really all that similar to what I did! And that says something to a kid about how much they’re valued and how much they matter. The sort of big unsaid message is that you don’t matter enough to be represented on TV.”

Set in the fictional Alaskan village of Qyah, the show follows Molly, an Alaska Native vlogger, as she spends time with her friends, family, and dog, and helps out in her family’s store, Denali Trading Post. Vera recalls two moments that impacted her when she watched the pilot of the show for the first time. One was a moment in which Molly’s mom casually beaded an Athabascan design while talking to Molly, and the second was seeing the character Mr. Patak in a sealskin vest.

“I’ve never seen anything remotely like a sealskin vest in an animated show, but it’s such a common thing to see in my culture,” said Vera. “Those two scenes made me so emotional, and to see them put up on PBS of all places… it said, ‘Yeah, you matter and what you look like and what you act like and the daily little boring things you do matter.’ And I think of the whole generation of Alaska Native kids that will get to grow up seeing Molly and they’ll never know a world where they aren’t represented. They’ll never know a world in which they don’t matter in this way.”

And the beautiful thing is that Vera often hears from her audience when they express to her just how much the show means to them. 

“I get messages about the last episode that I had out called ‘Molly and Elizabeth,’” continued Vera. “Molly is approached by two white people who don’t think she looks Native enough. This is a really common experience… You don’t look Native enough and you don’t act Native enough. After that episode came out, I got all of these messages from parents that said that they’d already seen their kids being approached with that and tagged with that. And their kids are watching this show and feeling encouraged that they can say, ‘That’s not okay’. There’s a lot of those kinds of moments throughout the series, whether I wrote the episode or not, that make me so proud to be Native, and I love that kids get to watch that and be proud of who they are.”

As she creates this wonderful work and collaborates on project after project, you may wonder how she has time for anything else. In fact, I’ve asked her on multiple occasions when she has time for sleep (Her answer is often: I don’t!). But somehow, Vera is also a part of the writing team behind the first ever Tlingit opera, an exciting project produced by Sealaska Heritage Institute and Perseverance Theatre. Set during the Tlingit-Russian War in Alaska during the early 1800s, Vera and composer Ed Littlefield have partnered to tell stories based on historical fact and oral traditions from the Tlingit perspective.

“In some ways it’s the easiest writing and in some ways it’s the hardest writing I’ve ever done,” explained Vera. “Ultimately, the whole play will be in Tlingit, so I’m working with Tlingit linguists to translate everything that I’m writing. And that makes it pretty hard because then you’re discussing every word as, ‘Is that what you really mean? Is that what you’re intending?’ So in that way it’s the hardest, because it’s sort of not my words. More of my work will be seen in the stage directions and in how the story plays out which are all things that aren’t being said.”

“The easy part is opera dialogue is really short,” she continued. “There’s a lot of repetition and you can take two minutes to say one sentence. In fact, there’s very little that I need to write in comparison to anything else that I’ve written. And the challenge again is… Does that work with the music? Does that work with the rest of the story? Is that going to work in translation? I’m literally not going to know if my story is working until we’re into rehearsals and we can see that people will understand the story through a combination of lyrics, music, story, set. It feels like extreme theatre!”

As I’m sure you can tell, there are opportunities to enjoy Vera’s work right now, and even more opportunities coming up in the future. Whether you turn on PBS Kids to catch an episode of Molly of Denali or you join us at the theatre to see a Vera Starbard play, you can enjoy her beautiful storytelling, her clever humor, and the Indigenous stories that she so thoughtfully shares.