The following are excerpts from an interview with Vera Starbard and Larissa FastHorse conducted by Ishmael Hope one week prior to the world premiere of Starbard’s debut play, “Our Voices Will Be Heard,” directed by FastHorse. Starbard is an Tlingit and Dena’ina Athabascan playwright and journalist who was born in Craig and now lives in Anchorage; FastHorse is a playwright, choreographer and director from the Sicangu Lakota Nation who lives in Santa Monica, California; and Hope is a Juneau-based Tlingit and Iñupiaq playwright and storyteller.
Before the interview began, the three theater artists discussed the current state of American theater as one in which Native voices and worldviews are beginning to be expressed more directly through the work of Native playwrights and directors, with help from groups like the Alaska Native Playwrights Project in Anchorage and Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles. “Our Voices Will Be Heard,” opening Friday in Juneau, is Perseverance Theatre’s first mainstage production to be written and directed by a Native team, Starbard and FastHorse. The play also features an all Native cast. For details, see the end of the interview.
Ishmael Hope: Vera, maybe you could go through a little bit of your background, what you’ve done outside of theater and how you’ve gotten into theater.
Vera Starbard: I definitely have had more experience outside of theater than inside. My experience with theater is — this play. Then recently, following the Alaska Native Playwrights Project, we (a small group of Anchorage theater artists) started Dark Winter Productions, which is an Alaska Native owned theater company in Anchorage.
I’ve always been a writer, since early elementary school, first or second grade. In high school, freshman year, I got involved in the high school newspaper, which started a long journalism career. I like to write short stories, poems, but didn’t really commit to a full-size, book-length project until 2007, seven years after graduating. It was about the story of the devilfish, a clan story from Clara Peratrovich. Rasmuson Foundation gave me an individual artist award and paid for me to travel to Devilfish Bay (on Prince of Wales). I did a lot of research in Craig and here in Juneau, and it completely changed the story. I’d had half the book done and then I wrote the whole book after that.
Then in 2011, 4 years ago, I saw this advertisement for the Alaska Native Playwrights Project, put on by the Alaska Native Heritage Center. I had just finished the book, and really felt my dialogue wasn’t strong. So I applied and got in and submitted this story called “Eyes of Love.” It’s a short story I wrote when I was 18 about the abuse I experienced from my uncle when I was little, and it got accepted. I don’t think I really considered that I was going to have to write a pretty difficult story that a lot of people were going to hear and discuss and have opinions on.
Larissa was chosen by the project as my mentor, so she literally took this from the first ten pages and mentored me through the whole process of writing a play. It would not have been the same play without her.
IH: It seems that your stories are really tied in with your life and your identity as a Native person, and it seems like it’s conscious decision to do that. What it is that propels you to be Native focused?
VS: I think that is who I am. A long time ago someone described one of my hobbies as Alaska Native interest. It was so strange to me because I am Alaska Native, that’s who I am, that’s what I’m interested in, that’s what I’m passionate about — helping the people I love, making ancestors proud, and making the future for my children better — all Alaska Native people, the whole circle.
IH: I’m so grateful that you have the courage to open up about your abuse, that history. We know that it’s widespread, it’s more widespread than we’d like to think. Do you want to talk about your experience translating that into first your short story and then the play?
VS: It’s funny that my mother was the one who recognized very early that I had a story to tell about the abuse. She was always encouraging creative writing, art, whatever it was. She would never describe herself as creative but she was always encouraging it in me, and I think that story was always there.
At 18 it was writing a story that was very metaphorical, a lot of allegory. I wrote the whole thing out, finally, and it was sort of the child’s perspective of the story of what had happened to me. Not just the abuse, the abuse was just the first few pages, it was really about what happened after, which to me was much more traumatic, which was how the family dealt with it. It was a decade later, picking that story back up during the intensive at the playwright project, that I really realized this was no longer the story I was trying to tell. I was an adult, I had been a nanny and was becoming a stepmom during the middle of that and I had a very different perspective on it.
At the same time my cousin, who was abused at the same time as me, at that moment had been abusing his stepdaughter and had been caught and was in the process of going to jail, so the cycle was repeating.
I started writing the story from my mother’s perspective of what had happened, but I chose very purposely to make it fictional — this was a 19th century Tlingit village, this was a created clan.
IH: So it’s influenced by your life but it’s not totally autobiographical.
VS: No. I would say it’s become less autobiographical even the last month. I would say the past two months I’ve really finally separated the characters from the real people.
The stories and scenes were inspired by actual events in some cases but not necessarily those same people, or sometimes it’s just the feeling of what happened versus what actually happened.
Larissa FastHorse: I think with a lot of the attention Vera’s gotten in the press it’s a common misconception. It’s definitely not an autobiography. I would say, working on it now for four years, it’s no more autobiographical than any playwright’s play. We all are writing from our perspectives, our life experience.
VS: It’s come further away from the literal version and it’s a stronger story because it isn’t this very literal version. The truth of it should still be there, the truth of what happens in a family where sexual abuse has taken place.
I worked for a decade in a Native health care organization where one of my primary functions was communication about sexual abuse, domestic violence, suicidal behavior, and was pretty trained in how to handle sexual abuse survivors, people who have traumatic historical trauma, and that made it into the play, that care, how you might care for someone, also how you should not respond to it. I think that really influenced a lot of it. The daughter in there is not necessarily like me, even though that is some of the inspiration for it. She has a big confrontation scene that I have never done. But it is what maybe I wished had happened.
LF: I think some of that is important in distinguishing, because it’s drama, it’s theater, and decisions had to be made that were right for this family of characters.
What makes it so universal is how specific she is to this being one family, and not trying to represent all families.
IH: What’s it been like working with the actors and designers, bringing the play on this four year journey? What are some of the dynamics and some of the challenges and some of the discoveries?
VS: It really is funny that Larissa ended up directing this because before she was even my mentor during the intensive, some of the writers including myself were struggling with, ‘This is my art, this is my writing.’ Having just come from writing a whole novel, it’s entirely in your head and you create the whole world. She said to the whole group, ‘If you wanted to do this on your own, you should go write a novel. This is theater, and it’s collaboration.’ In my head I was thinking ‘I did write a novel!’ I was really uncomfortable with the whole idea.
But I found in the very first reading, Randy Reinholz from Native Voices (at the Autry) was the director and Larissa was actually one of the actors who read it, Jack Dalton, who is doing (the play here) was one of the actors. They all made it better. It was so great to think, ‘Whoa, I wrote this thing and he said that line better than what I had in my head!’ I’ve found that every step of the way.
And once we got here (to Perseverance) to actually see the lyrics I wrote — I’m not a musical person, but Ed Littlefield took them and he’s making me look so great. The music is beautiful, and it’s better than what I had in my head. The set isn’t even close to what I had in my imagination, so beautiful and so much better than what I had in my head. It’s been so great to have these experts in these fields take the foundation and make it even better, including Larissa, who has been making it better for four years.
LF: Poor Vera, this is actually the first full production I’ve directed. I’m a playwright and choreographer and I approach my directing the same way I do my choreography, which is incredibly collaborative. I work with people I respect and have them create so much of it in the room. So for her it was an endless exercise in trust.
IH: What were some of the changes in the evolution of the script and how it’s staged.
LF: It’s been a lot. Even here (in Juneau), after four years and five readings, I think we rewrote every single page since we’ve been in rehearsals here.
VS: The actors were troupers too, because it was a ton of change. They couldn’t really memorize most of it until week two because so much was being rewritten, reordered. Some of it changed a lot when they started moving. It was ‘Oh, that person has to get from here to there and it’s super awkward if they’re still talking to that person over here.’
LF: It took seeing it. It’s her first play, and it’s amazing that this is her first play with this kind of production.
I think, too, it was really great that we could take advantage of having an entire Native American cast. Even if they’re not all Alaska Native and not all Tlingit, we were able to have all Native American people in this cast, they’re still coming from a familiar perspective, they understand where Vera’s coming from and what she’s trying to achieve with her work. (We’re) all coming from the same frame of reference and, at the same time, all – except Vera, sorry, Vera – very experienced in the Western theater world as well.
So being able to say, we get all this, now how can we help translate it to an audience which, in this case, may be primarily non-Native. And how can we — always keeping in mind the audience — how can we bring them into this as opposed to letting them feel alienated. It’s more of a bridge piece, I think, than anything, that’s something that was important to us, to create a bridge so that everyone feels welcome.
IH: What Larissa just said was interesting, obviously there’s a tension there. You’re a Tlingit person, Vera, you know your worldview, you’ve been around your elders, you’ve studied your culture, no one can take that from you. At the same time, there’s a tension to try to be accessible. My interest is how you as an artist keep the spirit and the integrity of your identity and what you’re trying to share, given all those constraints and all those challenges.
VS: I think it helped that I was so new to theater that I didn’t have a lot of what people are told for a decade of working in the theater before they have a play of theirs produced. I didn’t have what you’re supposed to do in mind. I just had the story I was telling. I’m Native and it came out from a Native perspective.
I do think in Los Angeles and San Diego, where there were readings, that the most contentious part of the play down there was the storyteller piece, which is most authentically my voice, it’s most authentically how I write in a narrative style. Some people hated it, some people loved it. The strongest champions said, ‘This is not a voice we’ve heard in American theater and we need to hear it more of it.’
Fortunately that was one of the first readings and that is stuck in my head. Jean Bruce Scott from Native Voices (at the Autry) stood up to say ‘No, this is an important voice we need to hear.’ Some people recognized a voice they wanted to hear from, and I’m going to keep giving them that voice.
Because it was most authentically my voice, I was probably the most insecure about it, but could speak with the most authority from it. So I would say, up to and including coming here and working with the dramaturge — they purposely question everything you do to make you either defend it or lose it — I was really insecure about the storyteller piece, but in that questioning period realized, that is most my voice. It is a very specific Tlingit voice that comes out.
IH: I know some people are going to come in thinking, ‘Oh, this is an issue play, this play is supposed to educate me or this play is supposed to try to have social impact.’ There’s a long history of literary criticism, historical criticism that will turn its nose at that kind of thing. I’ve been hearing you talk for the past hour about the artistry of the putting this together, I want to hear about the case for putting (together) a play like this with its artistry and an issue.
VS: That definitely has been a struggle in how I’m defining it for people, and in some ways why people are afraid to come to the play, because they have an expectation of what it must be.
We do see sexual abuse and incest represented in art almost always through kind of a law-and-order version or a poor-me version, where everything is terrible and it ends terrible, or, the law-and-order version, which is everything is OK as long as you get the confession and get them to jail.
My story is about two women who use their Tlingit culture to come out of very dark time. It wouldn’t even necessarily had to have been about sexual abuse, it could have been about anything, but it’s about their story, how they overcome all the things that are thrown at them. The story has always come first. It started with the story. It didn’t start with me thinking about how I could educate people about sexual abuse.
I personally have been most influenced on my healing journey from the movies I’ve seen, from the songs I listen to, from the artists who have created beautiful paintings, or even comics. The arts have always spoken to me and had that inward change in me more strongly than any after-school special or brochure that’s gone out. And almost every time it’s the story that hits.
I’m trying to get the message out about the play that it’s not this dark story where you feel sorry for this person who’s been a victim and hopefully she’ll be OK and the perpetrator is killed in the end. Spoiler alert: doesn’t happen in this play. What I’m hoping — including through a very open-ended ending to the play — is that people will feel hopeful, which is difficult to do with the topic of sexual abuse. Me, as a person, I’ve gone through it, dealt with it for a couple decades now, and I’m a fairly strong person now, where I haven’t always been. The inspirational story for how that happened is my mother. She is the one who made sure I was going to be a strong enough person to survive, and it was up to me to decide that I was going to thrive. She got me through it and I had to take it from there.
I want the tagline to be, ‘Trust me, see it and you’ll like it.’ Not even like it, not ‘I love this play and it made me feel good feelings’ — but I think the people who are afraid of seeing it, wouldn’t be if they saw it.
The Juneau production includes Tlingit actors Erin Tripp as Kutaan, Xoodi as Sagu, Leetta Gray as Wanadoo, and Frank Henry Kaash Katasse as Jinahaa; Yup’ik storyteller and actor Jack Dalton as the Storyteller; Iroquois actress Erika Stone as Litaa; Aleut actress Jane Lind as Shanaa, Cherokee actor Robert Vestal as Ta; and Ojibway/Turtle Clan Oneida actor Dylan Carusona (in Hoonah and Anchorage). The creative team includes Larissa FastHorse (director) of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and Southeast Alaskan Tlingit artists Ed Littlefield (sound and composition) and Rico Worl (artist), as well as team members Luan Schooler (dramaturge), Akiko Rotch (set), Art Rotch (lighting), Meg Zeder and Rick Silaj (costumes), Marley Horner (props), Anne Szeliski and Zebadiah Bodine (stage managers)
The Juneau production opens Friday Jan. 15, with pay-as-you-can previews scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 13 and 14 at 7:30 pm. It will be performed in Anchorage Feb. 19 – Feb. 28, and will have a short run in Hoonah between Feb. 12 and Feb. 14 with details TBA.