Playwriting Class – Beyond Realism: Pushing the Boundaries of the Imagination

joshua Education, Featured

Playwriting Class Description
Beyond Realism: Pushing the Boundaries of the Imagination
. Nineteenth century writer
Charles Baudelaire once condemned realism as a “war on the imagination.” While that idea can
seem amusingly hyperbolic today, it can also serve as a healthy challenge to writers interested in stretching their creativity, breaking the rules, and taking risks. In this lecture/workshop, we will
study contemporary examples of plays that push the boundaries of the theatrical form. With film
and television hewing so closely to the rigid parameters of realism, theatre remains a place where writers are able to experiment with wild abandon, while still telling stories that are grounded in recognizable human struggles and emotions. Since the skills learned here will be of benefit in other writing forms as well, this program is open to writers working in all genres.


WHERE: In-Person at Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St. Douglas AK 
WHEN: Monday, February 21st @ 6:30PM
COST: Pay What You Can – Suggested Donation of $20

Instructor Bio

Prince Gomolvilas is a Thai-American writer and winner of a PEN Center USA Literary Award
for Drama. His critically acclaimed play, The Brothers Paranormal, debuted Off-Broadway at
the Beckett Theatre, in a production by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. It has since been published
by Dramatic Publishing, performed across the country, and scheduled for productions in Juneau,
Anchorage, and Los Angeles. He is the co-creator of a new TV series currently in development
at Amazon Studios, and he is a former Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of
Southern California. More info can be found at https://www.princegomolvilas.com/.

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

Irene Martinko Blog, 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.

Meet the Playwright: A Conversation with Vera Starbard Pt. 1

Irene Martinko Blog, Featured

‘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.

Sigóowu Kíswas!

https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/vera-starbard-and-don-starbard/a-tlingit-christmas-caroling-and-coloring/paperback/product-m58rkj.html

The Golden Record: A Journey Through Space and Time

Irene Martinko Blog, Featured

On September 5, 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 space probe out of our atmosphere and into the cosmos.

Fast forward 44 years to 2021. This is when I read Jared Michael Delaney’s sci-fi play Voyager One for the very first time, and I’ll admit, I had absolutely no idea what the Voyager 1 space probe even was. Or I should say, what it is

Because yes, Voyager 1 is both very real and it’s still out there, journeying through interstellar space and collecting data on its path. And on Voyager 1, rests the Golden Record, shining in its case, ready to be deciphered by extraterrestrial life. 

Add this to the list of things I wish I’d learned about in school! 

Having now taken a dive into the real story behind the play, I’m absolutely fascinated by this piece of human history and, of course, regularly overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe and my little place in it. But existential crisis aside, let’s talk more about Voyager 1 and the Golden Record.

Voyager 1 was designed specifically to conduct research on planets within our solar system and beyond, into interstellar space, regularly communicating findings back to Earth so that we as a species could learn more about what’s out there. But NASA saw the potential in this mission for something even more special, and perhaps a little more unconventional.

Thus emerged the Golden Record. And yes, it is a literal record plated in gold. It contains music, “Sounds of Earth”, greetings in 55 different languages, and a series of images all designed to depict human life on Earth to any alien being who might come across it. The cover of the record is etched with pictures in an attempt to convey how a record should be played, and it was even sent with a cartridge and a needle. They really were trying to make extraterrestrial communication a little easier! 

It is, in essence, a veritable time capsule of humanity, capturing the hopes, the desires, the realities, and even the priorities of the United States in 1977. And now, it is the farthest man-made object from our very own planet… a little piece of the 1970s floating through interstellar space. 

What’s more, the people behind the Golden Record certainly left their mark on its contents. For instance, famous scientist Carl Sagan was put in charge of the NASA committee that set out to determine what would actually make it onto the record. You can now hear his laughter, captured in etchings and floating through space, as one of the “Sounds of Earth”. And his son, who was six years old at the time, recorded one of the English greetings, telling alien listeners, “Hello from the children of planet Earth”. 

Even romantic love made it onto the Golden Record. Ann Druyan, Creative Director of the project, had the brilliant idea of recording her own brain waves to be included on Voyager 1. She thought about many topics, including Earth’s history, civilizations and the problems they face, and what it was like to fall in love. And the beautiful thing? She was actually falling in love with Carl Sagan at the time. They married not long after and remained happily together for the rest of Sagan’s life. What could be more human than falling in love and wanting to tell the entire universe all about it?

Listening to the contents of the record on the internet using my modern-day laptop, I’m left with a feeling of curiosity and optimism, and that’s what I find so fascinating about this whole thing. There’s something so beautifully hopeful about the Golden Record. 

Over a year was spent determining what would go on this metal disc, what would perfectly encapsulate this intended image of humanity, and yet there was never a guarantee that the Golden Record would ever be found. We don’t know if there is life outside of our planet, and even if we did, there is no way of knowing that they would find Voyager 1, that they would be able to play the record, or that they would even understand what they had found. 

Yet, against all odds, NASA decided to move forward with this project anyway, because that unbelievably slim chance still made it all worth it.

If we were to make a version of the Golden Record today, I’m sure it would look pretty different. It likely wouldn’t be a record at all. After all, technology has changed quite a bit and continues to do so at a rapid pace. And I imagine there would still be a lot of debate about whether or not Johnny B. Goode should be the rock and roll song of choice. 

But I like to believe that our hope remains the same. We may not know what the future holds, but we can look at where we are now and think about where we’re going. We can work on doing better with every moment that we exist on this planet and in this universe, and we can hope that what we put out into the vastness of space is something positive, and something that reflects who we are.
You can stream Voyager One by Jared Michael Delaney On Demand now through December 12. For more information, visit ptalaska.org.

Bringing Down The Heat: De-Escalation and Safety

Irene Martinko Blog, Featured

If you’ve ever worked in customer service before, then you definitely know what it’s like to face a challenging customer. Maybe someone’s order isn’t exactly how they’d like it. Or perhaps, they’re frustrated by the time it’s taking for them to be served. These days, it may even be someone who is upset that they have to wear a mask indoors. 

But what happens when a situation like this escalates? How do you know what to do if someone gets so angry that you start to feel unsafe or concerned for the safety of those around you? 

I had these same questions running through my head when I agreed to participate in a de-escalation training workshop taught by IMPACT Boston instructors Adriana Li and Michael Perry, and organized by Perseverance Theatre. How am I, a young woman with an almost comical lack of physical strength, supposed to handle a situation that goes too far?

So when the day came, I opened up my laptop, found a quiet space to focus, and got ready to listen.

Tuning in to the workshop Zoom meeting, it was exciting to see that in addition to my own, 57 other devices had also tuned in to receive this de-escalation training. With Arts and Culture leaders, staff, board members, volunteers, and even family members from organizations in Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, nearly 70 people gathered together to learn. The goal was to garner tools and skills to support community well-being and everyone’s safe re-opening.

But what exactly did we learn? 

To begin, Adriana and Michael from IMPACT Boston, an organization dedicated to teaching self-defense, assertive communication, and de-escalation skills, shared with us a simple message. We were told that the goal should always be to stop escalation before it can even become a fight. When it comes down to it, de-escalation is all about preventing violence before it actually occurs.

We began our training by learning about adrenaline. Have you ever heard an unexpected loud noise that startled you so much that you began to feel that familiar fight or flight response? Your heart rate increased, your breathing became rapid, and time may have even felt like it slowed down or sped up? That’s your adrenaline kicking in. And though in some situations, it may be what keeps you alive, it can also make it really hard to respond to a conflict in a way that is calm and effective.

Adriana and Michael taught us different ways to recognize that feeling of adrenaline in ourselves and how to spot warning signs of that same reaction in others. We were given exercises to manage our own adrenaline and to ground ourselves if we start to feel that fight or flight taking over. I found myself learning skills that would not only be helpful in a de-escalation situation, but also in any stressful scenario in which I might need to keep a clear head.


In fact, Michael even shared with us that we have been living with an unprecedented level of stress in our bodies since the beginning of the pandemic. We have experienced what feels like a constant state of uncertainty, change, and ongoing worry. He and Adriana emphasized that investing time in breathing, grounding ourselves, and practicing stress-relieving techniques has never been more important. 

We then moved into examples of escalated situations in order to learn how to navigate them. We were taught about the words we use, our body language, our tone of voice, and even the way that we stand. All of these things send a message to the people we interact with. In learning how to present ourselves, we are able to have some measure of control in a situation that could potentially become dangerous. 

But what I found most engaging about the workshop was the last section, when Adriana and Michael shared role-playing scenarios with us, demonstrating the very techniques we had just discussed. 

They started by presenting a lower stress scenario, the set-up being a theatre employee welcoming a patron into the space and reminding them that masks are required indoors. The patron is unhappy about said requirement, and thus the escalation, and subsequent de-escalation, ensues.

We watched as they acted out increasingly more intense versions of this scenario, and then we came together to discuss what we had just seen. Some students were even able to practice their own de-escalation skills by taking over the role of theatre employee in the scenario, acting out the situation and using their newfound knowledge to confidently manage the conflict. 

But why is this training important? Sure, it may help us now and again, but where else in our lives can it be used? 

I, for one, left this workshop feeling much more confident about my own ability to de-escalate and about staying calm and collected in stressful situations. As someone who has worked both as a house manager and in a box office, I am of the mindset that this kind of training should be given to anyone in a customer service position. This kind of knowledge can only provide an additional level of safety and security to both employees and patrons in essentially any workplace setting.

But beyond that, de-escalation training is a step that we can take to learn how to protect both ourselves and others in our community in our everyday lives.

Say you’re walking down the street, and you witness a conflict that has the potential to escalate. Perhaps you see someone approach another with comments of racism, sexism, or homophobia. Groups that face elevated levels of discrimination in this country are of course more likely to see this kind of violence. De-escalation training gives us the skills to feel as if we can move from bystander, simply watching the events unfold, to upstander, the kind of person who feels as though they can de-escalate the situation and stand up for their fellow community members.

It reminds me of the TV show “What Would You Do?”, a program on ABC in which actors play out scenarios in public spaces to see if anyone will step forward to intervene. They create fabricated scenarios such as a customer making anti-Muslim comments to a Muslim cashier, or a restaurant refusing to serve a gay couple, and then they see what the real-life public will do. The hidden cameras always capture people who intervene and others who silently watch the situations unfold. When we open ourselves up to learn more about de-escalation tactics, we can become the kind of people who are able to intervene.

I hope that we at Perseverance continue to do this kind of training and work. Attending one workshop was beyond valuable, but I feel as though we have more learning to do, and I can personally say that I’m excited to do it. I also can’t even begin to say how comforting it is to see so many organizations in Alaska who are enthusiastic to learn along with us. Together, we can continue to learn these skills and keep our communities safe.