- 2019 Tour Begins: Juneau, April 6-7
We held our breath as an invited audience filed into our Preview show at McPhetres Hall in Juneau on Sunday, April 7. We exhaled when, after three intense weeks of rehearsals, we heard our first “live” audience laughing at the jokes. We had a show!
After the show, many in the audience told us they were moved by our story and they shared their stories, a pattern that was repeated by audience members in all the locations we visited. Our Juneau audience gave us the vote of confidence we needed to set off into parts of Northwestern Alaska unknown to most of us.
Thanks to The Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition for sponsoring our hometown show. We were proud to join them on March 26 at the Night of Remembrance Candlelight Vigil sponsored by the Alaska State Suicide Prevention Council on the Capitol steps. That coming together with others to acknowledge the pain caused by suicide helped us focus on our intention to use the play to change the climate of fear and hopelessness that breeds suicide.
Next stop: Anchorage and a day off. But first we have to take down the set, pack it up and send it off to cargo. A touring company member’s hard work is never done, but we’re hoping two weeks of practice will make it easier.
Comments from Juneau: “ I really enjoyed the play – I think it might save lives.”
“The cast really brought the play to life – such an important subject.”
- 2019 Tour – #2: Anchorage, April 8,9,10
It was a short plane ride from Juneau to Anchorage on Sunday, April 8, but a big transition from rehearsal mode to full-on tour mode.
Some of the cast actually got to have a day off on Monday, but Tour Manager Joshua, Playwright Anne, and Stage Manager Kadey spent their day purchasing granola bars, gaff tape, tempera paint, and many more last-minute items. It takes a lot of planning to bring 12 people, plus 1,000 pounds of set and equipment, plus food to remote communities. The purchasing and packing the food is the last, but certainly not least important.
Tuesday was one of our most challenging logistics days since we had to load-in, set-up, perform, take down, load out and bring set to cargo all in one afternoon.
We were performing at North Star Behavioral Health, a closed residential facility for young people with mental health issues. What a privilege to perform our show for our target audience! When one of our team tried to make conversation with a young North Star resident before the show, he would not engage. After the show, he sought her out and said, “That was a good show.” High praise from a young man who obviously “got” our story. Thank you North Star residents for your focus and attention.
We are grateful to Southcentral Foundation for giving us the opportunity to perform at North Star and for SCF staff who came to watch. The staff at North Star could not have been more welcoming, especially Haley Morrissey who guided us through all the rules. Laura Baez, NS Director of Risk Management, offered us a trip through the cafeteria line. We took it. Tour rule #1: never say no to food.
Our only regret is that we didn’t have time to engage with the audience after the show since we had to hustle to get everything to Alaska Airlines Air Cargo before closing time. We just made it.
Early to bed, since we had call to be packed and ready in the hotel lobby at 3:30 a.m. to begin our adventure to the village of Buckland, in the Northwest Arctic Borough.
- 2019 Tour – #3: Buckland, April 10-12
At 3:30 a.m. a sleepy cast and crew set off for the Anchorage airport.
We made it to Kotzebue only to wait several hours at the Bering Air Terminal until the fog lifted so our plane could depart for Buckland. Delays seemed like a big deal in the beginning, but we soon learned to accept them as part of travel in Northwest Alaska.
When we finally got off the ground, the landscape was spectacular: No trees; all white. It was hard to tell what was land and what was water.
Nunatchiaq School Principal Lee Clanton was waiting for us at the airstrip. He welcomed us to Buckland with his hearty Texan drawl and a convoy of four-wheelers to bring our stuff to the school. For our entire time in Buckland, we had a group of students and recent graduates ready to help us haul gear, show us around and answer questions. We felt instantly at home in this small community of 450.
After a game of dodge ball with the kids, we unpacked into the gym and set up the show only to have to move everything into a corner ‘fort’ so we could share the space with students training for the Native Youth Olympics. The athletes graciously coached some of the cast in NYO events, like the one-foot high kick and the seal hop.
The next day began early as we shared our space with NANA Nordic, who were taking students on cross-country skiing adventures (a busy week in Buckland). We held workshops and played fun theatre games with more than 125 kids. We taught them the animal signs we do in the play and were delighted when they joined us performing them during the show!
Roberta Moto, a member of Maniilaq’s Wellness Team, brought a dozen students from the village of Deering to see the show. They ended up staying a few extra days enjoying Buckland’s hospitality before a plane could get in to take them home. Roberta orchestrated an amazing community potluck before the show with food from Maniilaq and locals. Verna Westlake, Community Relations Coordinator for Teck Red Dog Mine, a major sponsor for the Kotzebue area portion of our tour, came to the show bearing the ‘famous’ Teck, Red Dog Mine chocolate chip cookies.
Over 150 came to watch the show, and laugh and gasp and hurdle toward the cast after the show for autographs. It was joyous to share the play with the community, and inspiring to hear about the inventive strategies they are using to cope with recent suicides.
It’s hard for some to watch a play that deals with suicide, but our Alaska Native Nonprofit partners make sure that our audiences have access to Behavioral Health specialists at every performance. We had three from Maniilaq for our Buckland show.
Before leaving Buckland on Friday morning, one of our student helpers, Floyd Herman Tickett III, middle in grey hoodie, gifted his first baleen carving to cast member Brían Wescott, a beautiful way to end an amazing visit to this incredible community!
- 2019 Tour – #4 Shungnak, April 12 – 14
We were blown away by the variety of landscapes in Northwest Arctic. Buckland is located on treeless tundra impressive for the vast expanse of land and water around it. Shungnak is 75 miles up the Kobuk River in mountainous country dotted with tall spruce. We are grateful to Teck Red Dog Mine, Maniilaq and NANA for allowing us to experience this remarkably diverse part of our state.
Even before our plane landed, we could see the snow machines and ATVs waiting to transport us from the airstrip to Shungnak School. Principal Roger Franklin greeted us wearing a jacket emblazoned with the cryptic slogan, “It’s a We.” We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but were eager to find out.
We had already heard a lot about Shungnak, population 250. We knew it used to be a small community with a large alcohol problem until a new high school principal, who turned out to be none other than Roger Franklin, worked with a group of junior high and high school students to turn things around. (“The Boys of Winter,” Arctic Sounder, April, 2016.)
On the short but bumpy ride from airstrip to school, our gear shared sled space with a carton of watermelons. When we arrived at the school, Principal Franklin gifted us with one, a rare treat in this remote village.
When we started exploring the halls and classrooms of the school, we discovered “It’s a We” slogans everywhere.
We put up the set in the gym that Friday evening so we could have a chance to sleep in on Saturday morning. Schools are kind enough to provide us with lodging, which is great, except that we have to be up, dressed, sleeping gear packed up and out of the classrooms before teachers and students arrive for the day. They arrive early – except on the weekends.
The next day, a Saturday, we got to sleep in, have a leisurely brunch and still have time to walk out into the beautiful landscape A few of us even got to drive snow machines! We enjoyed the new experience of making VHF announcements, which netted us just over 20 kids for our workshops.
Part of a community’s pay-off for hosting The Winter Bear, is an increase in enthusiasm for preventing suicide. That’s just what happened in Shungnak when Tanya Kirk, a member of Maniilaq’s Wellness Team, facilitated a “Healing Circle” to find out what the people of Shungnak wanted to do to to prevent suicides and how Maniilaq could assist them. It was a lively meeting that generated lots of good ideas. Many people were eager to sign up to help organize a local Wellness Committee in Shungnak.
More excitement when about 15 people arrived just in time for the potluck from the village of Ambler, an hour and a half snow machine ride from Shungnak.
After everyone ate more than their fill at the potluck, we all walked down the hill together to the school for the show. It was a sunny evening and an attentive audience. When the children swooped in after the show for pictures and autographs, we began to feel like part of the “We.”
The next day when we packed up to leave for Kotzebue (and eventually Nome) we were proudly wearing our new yellow “It’s a We” Shungnak sweatshirts. As we watched the tiny village fade into the vast landscape, we finally understood. It does indeed take a “We” to make a community.
Thank you Shungnak. Now on to Nome where the Iditarod ends and our adventure continues!
- 2019 Tour – #5 Nome, April 14-16
We had a nanosecond of apprehension as we arrived in the “big city” of Nome (pop. 3,841) after two small villages. What if they forgot us? Then we saw two enthusiastic young ladies, holding up a “Welcome Winter Bear” sign. They didn’t forget us! In fact we couldn’t have had a more gleeful welcome if we were a victorious sports team returning home.
Alice Bioff who came to meet us with her daughter Aries, and friend Andrea Irrigoo orchestrated all this. Alice’s husband John was there too with his big truck. (We love big, wide-bodied trucks for all our odd-shaped stuff.)
As in every location, it takes a whole community to host The Winter Bear. Carol Gales and Alice Bioff, both members of the Nome Arts Council, worked with Perseverance Theatre’s Development Director Erika Stone to bring together a coalition of funders including Sitnasauk Native Corporation, our major Nome funder, Kawerak, the Nome Arts Council, Norton Sound Health Corporation and King Island Native Corporation. Nome City School District provided venues for the potluck and show at Nome Elementary School. The National Park Service provided housing at their Nome Bunkhouse. Couches, kitchens, grocery stores, and beds – oh my!
After setting up the show in the gym at Nome Elementary on Tuesday night and repairing to our sumptuous digs at the NPS Bunkhouse, we celebrated the halfway mark of our tour with sparkling cider and ice cream sandwiches – such decadence.
The cast and crew took the next morning to explore Nome in between workshops at the Elementary, Junior and Senior High Schools, and the Science Academy. We must confess many selfies were taken next to the ‘End of the Iditarod” sign. Meanwhile Playwright Anne Hanley and actors Brían Wescott (Sidney Huntington) and Skyler Ray-Benson Davis (Duane) paid a visit to Anvil Mountain Correctional Facility where the two actors did selected scenes from The Winter Bear. Even though time for dialogue with the inmates was short, there was recognition of shared brotherhood between the actors, both Alaska Natives, and the men in yellow, most of whom were also Alaska Native. It was a moving experience for all of us. We hope to come back someday and do the whole show for those responsive young men.
The Bering Sea Lions Club and a number of other community organizations worked together to make that evening’s pre-show potluck a true community feast. A big crowd turned out to enjoy all-you-could-eat salmon and halibut donated by the Norton Sound Health Corporation. But it was the Dessert Table that won The Winter Bear’s heart: Mountains of fry bread, along with a dazzling array of blueberry desserts, all homemade by members of local youth organizations. The potluck also provided an opportunity for people from a number of the social service agencies in Nome to talk about what they were doing to prevent suicides.
Almost 200 people crowded into the gym for the show. After it was over, a number of people came forward to share their stories. One “survivor,” a mother of three, told us how grateful she is to be alive to watch her children grow up. It always gives us a boost to hear such stories since we hear so many sad ones from people grieving loved ones who died by suicide.
After we packed up the set, we packed ourselves a large doggie box of leftover fry bread, perfect for a midnight snack at the bunkhouse.
Fortunately we arrived at the Nome Airport early Tuesday morning because we had to spend a good deal of time with the Alaska Airlines luggage Team, who were both amused and aghast to behold our plastic bins, odd-shaped pieces of Styrofoam ©, ski bags full of rods for our set frames, and costume duffels. When we finally reached a rapprochement between their regulations and our desperate need to get all our stuff to Anchorage, they awarded our Tour Manager Joshua a Junior TSA Officer badge. Unfortunately we had to forfeit our doggie box of fry bread as part of the deal.
- 2019 Tour – #6 Saint Paul, April 16-18
Since we had hours to wait in Anchorage, we ventured into the city for an urban refresh returning to the airport in plenty of time to check in with our charter for St. Paul Island only to be told that strong headwinds made it necessary for us to shed 500 pounds of weight so they could take on more fuel.
We sat on the floor at Ace Air cargo and began unpacking, repacking and haggling about what was essential. We’d just about finished dropping the 500 pounds when we were told we had to drop 200 more pounds more if we wanted to take off that day. (There were no more scheduled flights to St. Paul for a week.)
At this point, our Tour Manager Joshua had the great(?) idea to drop our food, which conveniently weighed about 200 pounds. “We’ve seen what communities can do,” he challenged us when we looked dubiously at him. “We have to trust the community to provide.”
With that he sent our food on to Unalaska, our last stop. As if the Universe heard him, at that very moment the St. Paul School Superintendent, called with a problem. The St. Paul School’s fifth grade class trip to Florida was in peril because their scheduled flight from St. Paul to Anchorage had been cancelled. It didn’t take the two of them long to come up with a win-win deal: If St. Paul could feed us for three days, we could give them the return portion of our charter out there.
Three loud, small plane hours later we found ourselves flying over a tiny, treeless, relatively young volcanic island in the middle of endless ocean. Once we landed, we were welcomed as heroes by fifth graders and their parents anxious to board our plane for the first leg of their trip of a lifetime.
We found St. Paul much more magical than Disneyworld. It had foxes, craters, cinder cones, seal rookeries, woolly mammoth fossils, and unusual birds like crested auklets and tufted puffins. We were literally blown away by the weather, a battleground of stormy, sunny, gentle, wild and foggy all at the same time.
We unloaded into our private wing of the school dined sumptuously on lasagna and ice cream. Thank you generous people of St. Paul for indulging us in our favorite foods. The next day we led workshops with all 50 or so kids from K-12 (except the Florida-bound fifth graders). We worked out the kinks of our bare bones set and even borrowed a few items from around town. The show didn’t seem to suffer. In fact the words seemed stronger echoing in the Sea Parrots’ gym while the wind howled outside.
Before leaving the next day Jason Bourdukofsky gave us a tour of the Aleut Heritage Museum adjacent to Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church. Many of the artifacts in the Museum had some connection to Jason’s family. It was riveting to hear the island’s history from a person whose family had lived there for generations through the fur-sealing epoch and the internment camp in Funter Bay during WWII.
As we boarded our same Ace Cargo charter plane to head to Unalaska, we all had regrets about leaving this rugged but insanely beautiful place. We made promises to ourselves and each other to return to these 40 square miles of Pribilof Isle not only for the stunning scenery and the seals but also – and most of all – for the warm and generous Unangan people who fed us so well and showed us their island.
- 2019 Tour – #7 Unalaska, April 18-21
It was thick fog for the entire 268-mile charter from St. Paul to Unalaska, but when we finally dipped down below the fog, we saw mountains rising straight up out of the ocean; harbors everywhere; boats and beaches, high-tech fish processing plants and wild tundra. Welcome to the incomparable Unalaska!
Janice Krukoff, Community Liaison at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association’s Oonalaska Wellness Center and our local liaison extraordinaire, whisked us into a van and brought us to The Grand Aleutian Hotel (and yes, it looked grand to us) where she handed each one of us a goodie bag full of information and useful things from Unalaska.
We just had time to dump suitcases in our rooms before climbing into the van again.
As we crossed the bridge separating Amaknak Island from Unalaska Island, Janice clued us in on an important distinction: Locals never refer to their community as “Dutch Harbor.” The name of the community is Unalaska, or “Ounalaska” or “Oonalaska” (closer to the original Unangan). Dutch Harbor is the port. We appreciated the clarification: Dutch Harbor is to Unalaska as Long Beach is to Los Angeles.
Janice delivered us to the campus of Unalaska Junior/ Senior High where we hoped to make short work of putting up our set. But alas NYO athletes were high kicking, seal hopping, stick pulling and wrist carrying in the gym so we were “forced” to stuff our set into a closet and take off for a leisurely dinner at the Harborview where we could watch eagles soaring and sea otters swimming just outside the bay window.
We were so ready for the next day, Friday, our first company day off since Anchorage. Janice, our official unofficial tour guide, was determined we were going to make the most of it. First we met her at the Aleutian WWII Visitor Center, where Aquilina Bereskin welcomed us and Janice augmented the exhibits with stories about her family’s activities in the area during WWII. Then it was off to the Museum of the Aleutians, which manages to gracefully integrate the cultural and natural history of the region. The next event Janice had planned for us was really special. She arranged for Father Ivon Bereskin to give us a tour of his parish church, the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension Of Christ Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest cruciform church in the North America, dating back to the Russian fur-trading days in the early 1800s. Father Bereskin was most cordial and gave us all sorts of information about the icons, paintings and history of the church. He even allowed us to take some photos.
After lunch with the kids at the high school cafeteria, we returned to the Grand Aleutian for some free time. Some hiked, some napped and some just processed all the information we were given on our tours. For dinner we were guests at a community potluck hosted by the Qawalangin Tribe at the Unalaska Senior Center. The Unangan elders got a kick out of watching us eat all the different kinds of seafood, including octopus. We all enjoyed watching the Unangan Dancers.
Our Saturday got off to a great start at the Annual Pre-Easter Brunch hosted by the Ballyhoo Lions Club. The whole community turned out in the high school cafeteria for eggs, bacon, pancakes and a chance to admire all the children in their Easter finery. Jim Wilson, the Jr./Senior High School Principal who is also the President of Ballyhoo Lions, kept the event moving by giving away gigantic Easter baskets door prizes. We cheered when Janice Krukoff won one of them.
Putting up the set and doing workshops with the kids after brunch helped us work off the pancakes so we could focus on our Saturday evening show, our final performance of the 2019 tour.
It was a beautiful ending. Over one hundred community members watched the cast give some of their best performances. Everything seemed to click. For one thing, we had the whole set to work with, but we also had the confidence of knowing we could do the play with just a makeshift set. That confidence of finally being able to trust the play helped everyone relax and just do it. Having two weeks and seven very different audiences was a great gift.
After the show, we celebrated with a dance party across the street from the hotel.
The next morning was hurry-up-and-wait at the Unalaska Airport along with many workers from the fish processing plants speaking Slovenian, Russian, Korean, Filipino and other languages we couldn’t identify. We were all going home.
The fog rolled in. By this time we’d learned how to wait and welcomed the time to reflect on all the amazing, wonderful, hospitable, generous people we met. We headed to our respective homes confident that the communities of Northwest Alaska have the knowledge, experience, resources and the will to change the climate of fear and hopelessness that causes suicide. It was a privilege to work with them.