After 32 years in Juneau, Perseverance Theatre, (PT) is expanding its season to Anchorage in 2012 by remounting two well-received productions from its most recent season, “The Blue Bear” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Both offerings will be presented at the Sydney Laurence Theatre at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
PT is Alaska’s largest and most acclaimed professional theatre company. Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive" was written while she was a PT artist in residence. More than 50 new plays have debuted on its stages.
Presented in conjunction with the Anchorage Concert Association, “The Blue Bear,” which debuted earlier this year in Juneau, will feature its original cast in Anchorage next February. Lorraine Hasberry’s landmark 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” will follow in April 2012.
PT’s artistic director, Art Rotch, is excited to bring the shows before a new audience. “We turned 30 a couple of years ago and we had a change in leadership. It was time to take stock, look all the way back and then look forward more than a few years,” Rotch says. “To achieve our long term vision we needed to stretch and grow a little bit and reach more Alaska audiences.”
With support from the Alaska Humanities Forum, “The Blue Bear” was adapted from author Lynn Schooler’s 2002 book The Blue Bear: A True Story of Friendship, Tragedy and Survival in the Alaskan Wilderness. It chronicles Schooler’s friendship with Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino and their quest to find and photograph the elusive glacier bear.
Glacier, or blue bears (named for their silvery pelts) are estimated to number fewer than 100. They exclusively inhabit the coastline of Southeast Alaska, whose Native peoples revere the bears as mystical beings.
Rotch, who joined PT in 2008, proposed adapting the memoir for the stage during his job application and interview process in his vision of a “dream project” for PT's 30th anniversary season.
“The author, Lynn Schooler, has some qualities I relate to,” he says. “The book stuck with me.”
The book details how Schooler, scarred by childhood scoliosis that confined him to a back brace and subjected him to ridicule from his peers for much of his formative years, is trying to come to terms with a friend’s murder at the hands of a serial killer when he and Hoshino meet. Schooler is hired to guide the renowned photographer. The Blue Bear traces the friendship they developed while exploring some of Alaska’s wildest places on their search.
Before Schooler and Hoshino found a glacier bear to photograph, a grizzly bear killed Hoshino on the Kamtchaka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, where Hoshino was on assignment. While Schooler eventually photographs a glacier bear in honor of his friend, the profound impact of Hoshino’s friendship on Schooler’s life is the book’s central premise.
Published in 2002, The Blue Bear has been highly acclaimed. The Oregonian raved about the “awe-inspiring beauty of Alaska's Glacier Coast” described in its pages. Publishers Weekly called the memoir “beautifully crafted” and spoke of the “overpowering Alaska landscape.” The Seattle Times labeled Schooler’s prose “cinematography,” while the New York Times Book Review praised it as “sublime."
Rotch was faced with the challenge of just how to capture these abstract concepts and present them on stage, how to portray the essence of Schooler and Hoshino’s journey together without overstating their intimacy, and how to translate internal dialogues for dramatic audiences.
Rotch and PT received a $10,000 grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum in 2010 to create an Alaska-inspired dramatic text along with related workshops and discussions. They enlisted Luann Schooler, a playwright and the author’s sister.
Lynn was initially reluctant to participate in the process of converting her brother’s deeply personal work to a stage performance. She had the original text in a word document on her computer and cut out everything that wasn’t dialogue, Rotch recalls.
“There’s about a page on 27, half a page on 52, and in total about nine pages of dialogue in the entire book,” he says. “The heart of the story is the relationship between two people and what was not said was often as important as what was said. The task of creating playable action and dialogue out of that book was hard but really vibrant once it came to the stage.”
"[My brother] wrote a giraffe, and we're making a monkey," Luann told the audience at a University of Alaska “Page to Stage” lecture on the book’s transformation into a play. "The book is quite introspective, it has a lot of fabulous natural history sections in it, there's internal journeys. Although it's rich material, it's really not an obvious play."
Hoshino’s estate and widow were supportive of the project and the play uses many of his photographs as well as Schooler's in the stage production. The photos were integrated into the production at the same time the script was being created and are projected on a screen behind the sparse set.
“There are moments in the play in which the pictures actually do take the foreground and the actors step back and let them take the lead,” Rotch says.
Directed by Leon Ingulsrud, with Ryan Conarro portraying Schooler and Taka Yamamoto as Hoshino, the play garnered sterling reviews during its Juneau run.
Tickets for the February 10 through 12 performances of “The Blue Bear” are $15 to $29 and can be purchased from the Anchorage Concert Association, (907) 272-1471, or online here. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.