Monday, March 25, 2013

Leslie Hsu Oh Interviews Ed Bourgeois: the Alaska Native Playwrights Project

You once said that the goal of the Alaska Native Playwrights Project is to identify Alaska Native artists who are interested in learning the craft of playwriting and help walk them through the creation of their first script. It's an attempt to begin filling a void in the American dramatic canon, where Alaska Natives are barely represented. Now in its third year, how has this goal evolved?

The goal of the Alaska Native Playwrights Project (ANPP) remains the same today as on day one – identify, train and nurture Alaska Native playwrights – and I believe we’ve made significant progress towards it. In January, we conducted our third Playwriting Intensive Workshop with eight writers. By the time this cohort completes its writing process, with first-draft scripts in August, we will have trained 32 playwrights in three years. Only two of those participants did not finish scripts, so that means ANPP has introduced 30 new plays to the canon. We also maintain a community between us – writers, mentors, teachers and program staff – through Facebook, email and convenings, and the writers maintain long-term relationships with their mentors, which enable them to enjoy continuing professional support and consultation. So in that way, both the training and nurturing components of our goal are being met.

Tell me more about the mentors that have been involved with this project and share some important advice that they’ve offered.

I attribute the success of the ANPP to its grounding in one-on-one mentorship. All too often in the western educational system, students receive instruction in one way – through lecture and testing – and success is demonstrated only by those for whom the information “sticks,” with the rest falling through the cracks. Mentorship, with the apprentice in a long-term, side-by-side relationship with someone who has mastered the particular skill, is a preferable model, especially in the arts. The mentors and teaching artists that we have managed to secure in the ANPP have been among Native America’s best known and most prolific playwrights. Diane Glancy, Larissa FastHorse, Joy Harjo, Diane Benson, Terry Gomez, and many others – all published and produced playwrights, inspiring artists and accomplished teachers.  

Together with Lead Teaching Artist Rob Caisley, Head of Dramatic Writing Program, University of Idaho, these professional practitioners provide nine days of “boot camp” instruction in the basics of the craft, and then select program participants in mentor-mentee pairings, and over a seven-month writing process, guide their students through the challenging process of completing their scripts, giving advice, answering questions and sharing their experience. The advice they share with their mentees ranges from the nuts and bolts of dramatic structure, how to build characters and voice, develop dialogue and scenes of conflict. But perhaps the best tips they share involved inspiring writers to write – how to develop a practice of putting words on the blank page on a daily basis and avoid the blocks that tend to arise after the initial creative spurt and prevent the completion of writers’ work. Each teaching playwright brings his or her own specific tools, exercises and inspiration for how to tell dramatic stories, and all have been most generous in sharing them with their cohorts.

Tell me more about the participants that have been involved with this project and share some important lessons they’ve learned.

The February/March 2011 issue of First Alaskans magazine featured the first (2010) cohort of ANPP writers, the nine who completed plays and had them read publicly at Cyrano’s Playhouse in November, 2010. That article includes quotes and comments regarding the mentorship and writing process, and their plays.

Subsequent cohorts have included nine new writers in the 2012 cohort and a group of five returning (Level II) playwrights from the 2010 group, who, with support from the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, joined the 2012 Workshop and worked with mentors to explore an advanced curriculum and write new plays. The 2013 cohort of eight writers includes three returning writers and five novices.

The 32 participants have represented a diverse mix of Alaska Native cultures – Yup’ik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Athabascan, Sugpiaq, Unangax, Tlingit – as well as a Native Hawaiian and a Mohawk writer. Their backgrounds have ranged from visual and performing artists, poets, non-profit professionals and therapists, to a nurse and a goat farmer; parents, grandparents, urban and rural Natives.
Many quotes regarding their lessons learned are included in the First Alaskans article mentioned above. My favorite, from Lisa Marie Heitman-Bruce (Sugpiaq) was: “The workshop was very emotional. There was a lot of crying. You realize how much Native cultures have suffered – how long we’ve stayed quiet about it.”

How has the Alaska Native Playwrights Project impacted the careers of the participants?

The ANPP has launched a few writing careers, I would say. No one has a play on Broadway yet, but then we wouldn’t expect that in three years. The path of plays to full production is generally a long one. As mentor Diane Glancy – who has had many books of her plays published and even more produced for the stage – says, “I’ve never had a play produced that didn’t have at least three years of revision before it was ready.” But it seems that most of the playwrights that have come through the program continue to write regularly, some have completed new pieces, and a few of the writers’ paths have taken exciting turns as a result of their participation. 

Two playwrights, Holly Stanton and Suzie Silook, were invited to the 14th Annual Festival of New Plays at the Autry and were given the opportunity to have their plays workshopped, with dramaturgs advising and professional actors reading, for public readings in Los Angeles and at LaJolla Playhouse.  At least four of them have had their work read in the New Play Lab at the annual Last Frontier Theatre Festival (Valdez, AK). In 2011, Lucas Rowley’s play, Raven One, was one of six plays selected nationwide for inclusion in the Native Voices at the Autry’s Short Play Festival and won the first prize. Holly Stanton’s play Cikiuteklluku (Giving Something Away), was one of the pieces workshopped at Native Voices at the Autry and, subsequently, received a developmental production at Out North Contemporary Art House, in association with Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre.

Art Rotch, Artistic Director of Perseverance, has expressed a strong interest in having his company collaborate with the Heritage Center to develop and produce ANPP plays on their mainstage over the long term. As a company whose mission is to produce “plays by and for Alaskans,” Perseverance is looking to ANPP to help ensure that the Alaska Native voice is included in its repertoire. With potential partnerships such as this in the offing, it seems the future of ANPP’s writers is bright.

What is your vision for the future of The Alaska Native Playwrights Project?

The immediate goal is to identify and secure funding to keep the program going beyond this year. Initial funding for ANPP was a one-year grant from the Ford Foundation. That was supposed to be it. But then, based on the success of the first cohort, the Foundation stepped up with two additional years of support, which will take us through the current 2013 cohort. Now we’re seeking funders to keep the program going forward.

Beyond the immediate, the vision for ANPP would be a Native Writers’ Institute, with both playwriting and screenwriting strands, multiple annual convenings, teaching workshops, and a regular process for developing works with staff dramaturgs and a resident group of Native actors to give readings of the plays that are in development. The dream would be a campus somewhere in the woods, in direct touch with the natural world – a place of both solitude and community, inspiration and sharing - to house a true residency program for Native writers in Alaska.

We’d also like to share the model with other Native communities in the Lower 48 and Hawai’i, so they might provide a similar platform for their own peoples’ voices. There is no great secret to how ANPP works – we provide high-level academic training, one-on-one mentorship with working professionals, and nurture a sense of community among the writers. And we believe the same can be done in any Native community in the country. So we hope others will take the program up and run with it.

What else would you like our readers to know about the Alaska Native Playwrights Project?

We’re always gathering names of those who might be interested in participating in an upcoming cohort. Contact Ed Bourgeois at No playwriting experience needed!

1 comment:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great to read about this fine project in more detail. Thanks Leslie!