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.

Shungnak School Principal Roger Franklin

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.

Tanya Kirk, a member of Maniilaq’s Wellness Team

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!

School Counselor Andie Zink bringing the crew back to the airstrip.

2019 Tour – #3: Buckland, April 10-12

Sunrise at the Buckland cemetery.

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.

Stage Manager Kadey Ambrose warming up the younger audience before the show.

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.

Roberta Moto (in yellow) with kids from Deering and The Winter Bear cast.
Marla & Delbert Thomas share a laugh at the potluck.

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.

Edith Melton gave the blessing at the potluck.

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 – #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.