Thursday, November 10, 2011

Think It in Skagway (population 862)

On Monday, September 19, Art Rotch, the artistic director of Perseverance Theatre, and I boarded the six-seat plane that makes the 80-mile trip northwest from Juneau to Skagway. It was the typical Southeast Alaska day: windy, rainy and cold. Once in the air, luckily, the clouds were high enough that we could see the many glaciers of the Juneau Icefield. Feeling relaxed and thinking of all the things we could possibly “think,” I saw Skagway in the distance and the plane began to descend. And then for the next five minutes, I feared for our lives. Art and I have both been on our share of scary flights. It’s actually just part of living in Alaska, but this particular landing in Skagway definitely ranked among the scariest. After a terribly long five minutes, we made it safely to the ground. The rest of the flights that day in and out of Skagway were cancelled.

Armed with big, sticky sheets of paper, Sharpies, yellow tablets and a slideshow about Perseverance Theatre, Art and I walked through the town of Skagway on our way to the first Think It meeting at the Eagles Hall. Skagway has a few performance spaces, with the best one being in the Eagles Hall where The Days of ’98 show performs. A booming tourist town, Skagway makes most of its money on summer tourism. Running since 1925, The Days of ’98 is a historical summer musical about the Gold Rush and the legendary con man Soapy Smith. The artistic director of The Days of ‘98 Jonathan Baldwin was kind enough to let us use the space for the meeting. Margeaux Heaton, a longtime Skagweyian and head madam at the former brothel-turned-restaurant The Red Onion Saloon, helped get the word out about the convening.

The meeting began with three actor/singers, a producer, a director and a member of the Skagway Arts Council.

Having worked as a teaching artist and theatre educator for my entire professional career, I must admit that this was the hardest “curriculum” I’ve ever had to create. Art and I talked for a long time about how to shape this meeting. How do you ask questions that are open-ended enough for the group of artists to have a good, big-sky think, and at the same time, be pointed enough to serve the needs of our organization? Interestingly, we did find our way back to TCG’s 2011 conference theme “What if…” and it proved to be very useful. Mainly, we asked participants to dream big. What does Alaskan theatre look like? What do artists need to make Alaskan theatre more viable? What if Perseverance Theatre created a statewide artistic company? What is that? Who is it? What’s your role?

The folks in Skagway had so much to say. I learned a lot about their community and how, really, only a handful of people in the town are responsible for creating a whole lot of theatre. People in Skagway also felt that a larger statewide theatre conference, and ultimately, a community, would be useful. They expressed a real desire to know all the players in Alaska. The word “isolated” came up time and time again.

I left Skagway thinking about theatre, isolation, and Alaska. It’s true: Our entire state has only 600,000 people and an enormous 586,000 square miles. We’re extremely isolated from each other, and from the lower 48. The people in our state like it that way. The pioneering, creative, and adventurous individual thrives here. So, how do we build a company and a community of artists, and at the same time, draw heavily on the strengths of the individual?

Next up, Sitka. Population 8,889.

Thinking It,
Shona Strauser
Artistic Associate & Director of Education
Perseverance Theatre

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