A Conversation with Perseverance Theatre's Leslie Ishii
I was fortunate to attend the Valdez Theatre Conference in Alaska this June, where I witnessed the incredible spirit of artists who came from around the country to the small town of Valdez to spend the week sharing new plays, learning from each other, and moving the American theater field forward with their remarkable creativity and generosity. Currently led by Dawson Moore, the conference began in 1992 and over the years has included such playwright luminaries as Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Terrance McNally, and August Wilson, among many others. The conference is a mix of readings and full productions, giving playwrights an opportunity to garner feedback on their work while also engaging with theater professionals, including fellow playwrights, artistic directors, actors, and others around deeper questions of equity, inclusion, community, and more.
While at the conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with Leslie Ishii, the Artistic Director of Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, to discuss the importance of supporting new plays and the unique opportunities and challenges of making theater in the Last Frontier State.
NEA: Can you talk about your role in the conference as what’s called a responder?
ISHII: I was really honored to be invited by Dawson to attend this conference as a responder. Responders are assigned specific plays throughout the conference schedule. There are, on the average, eight plays read a day. We are sent the plays, in advance, for review and then [at the conference] we meet the playwright and director and listen to the play. Upon completion of the play reading, we applaud the playwright, actors, and director, which is well-deserved, and then we conduct a panel and share our responses. We leave time for our audience to offer their responses as well.
As responders we bring our best dramaturgy and analysis around the experience of storytelling and any given story’s purpose/message, impact, and resonance with the creative teams and, of course, the audiences. Often the playwright will convey specific questions ahead of time for us to respond to regarding a theme, scene, character, the play’s structure or how the play ends. The idea is to support [the playwright] by sharing, basically, what worked well and how the play landed, what's resonating. It’s very helpful for a playwright to learn what the play made you feel and think, and where you have questions or confusions.
I do my best to bring my thinking around equity, diversity, inclusion, access, and decolonizing and indigenizing. I ask myself, “What does all of this mean to the world of that play?” Sometimes it’s necessary for me to ask, “What will happen with the play if it's a more diverse cast?” Or “Because it was cast inclusively and we know bodies aren't neutral on stage, what did that mean for the story, for that character, and the actor playing that role? Does that change the language or something about the intent of the message or the perceived motivation of the character?” Because we know we all have conscious and unconscious biases. So any of us at a point in the process might racialize an actor playing a particular character, or they and we might make meaning of a particular combination of words that might be unconsciously triggering. We talk about that too, so that the playwright can figure out what those challenges are and work through them early in the development process before production. Our spaces are learning spaces, and it’s exciting and re-humanizing where systemic oppression dehumanizes us in ways we aren’t aware of.
NEA: At this moment where so many new play incubators are closing, why do you think a new play festival is still important to the field?
ISHII: New work incubators are critical. As we continue to decolonize and work in anti-racist, anti-oppressive, more humane, just, and equitable ways, we are consciously building an inclusive canon of plays/stories for the U.S. and the world. Having an incubator to support the development of new work in such a way where we have panelists and participants… inclusive of the intersectionality of many identities, supports our theater sector in contributing in vital ways toward the future health and wellbeing of our global ecologies. This Play Lab is where I have some of the most complex conversations. The responders and playwrights express many different vantage points, points of view, and we listen and experience this incredible range of perspectives. I learn so much from this conference, and I think this process is so critical for the playwright today. We know from COVID that creating in isolation, in a vacuum, is not helpful or healthy. It’s important to know, at this conference, that in any given room, there may be anywhere from 30 to 50 people or more attending a play reading, many of them thoughtfully responding, while there are two other readings happening in other spaces at any given hour of the morning or afternoon. They have conversations in the lobby, at meals, coffee, while walking and enjoying being outside in a breathtaking environment. I think it helps infuse the theater sector with a kind of energy that is something that we all long for, to replenish ourselves while being in community.
NEA: Let’s talk about your own work here in Alaska at Perseverance Theatre where you're the artistic director. What is special and unique about making theater in Alaska?
ISHII: Perseverance Theater was founded in 1979 by Molly Smith, a year after the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. American Indians were finally able to practice their traditional beliefs and ways of life again. Molly started Perseverance Theatre’s relations and work with Alaska Natives. What is truly special and just is now we're seeing all the momentum of revitalization that's happened since that reversal. On Lingít Aaní this spring, 22 newly commissioned totem poles were raised. People get off cruise ships and take a tour now to look at the beautiful artistry of those Lingít and Southeast Alaska Native artisans and know right away they are on Native land. It's powerful and an honor to be here to produce Alaska Native playwrights’ new work, their storytelling, to do our part to support the revitalization of their languages, art, culture, traditions, and way of life. Throughout Alaska, Alaska Native languages are being revitalized and on Lingít Aaní, specifically, it's in elementary and middle schools. This means generations of Alaska Natives will be performing these Alaska Native new works that will someday be revived. And now at our University of Alaska, Southeast, University Alaska, Anchorage, and throughout the University of Alaska system, you can major, minor, and earn certification in Alaska Native Arts, Languages, and Studies.
As we are on Alaska Native land to decolonize and indigenize, Perseverance Theater has also adopted the values of Southeast Alaska Native Elders: Respect Ancestors, Elders, Creator; be good stewards of the land, air, sea; have patience, humor, and listen with respect and speak with care; a leader in every seat; and be strong in mind, body, and spirit. These values have really impacted our theater-making. We put decolonizing and the practice of justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and access at the forefront of every conversation in our theater practice and it has caused us to change our structures and therefore, our processes. Now that we've changed processes and the model, people feel healed, and they're coming back to work. We keep working on what is most humane and we also have no qualms about being iterative. We make a change, if needed, in a heartbeat. I can share too, that producing professional theater by and for Alaskans is our mission and working toward our collective liberation is also at the forefront of our values and does bring excellence.
I'm grateful that our board supports [these values]. We have an Alaska Native Board President, Joe Bedard, who is of Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and Cree heritage. Joe, who has served on our board for a number of years, might be the first Native/Indigenous Board President of a non-Native/Indigenous theater. We have a highly diverse board, and they support the values of justice and collective liberation. I feel like, for the first time in my career, I’m not fighting for my identification and visibility as a Japanese-American, female-identified human, but instead I'm embraced as Japanese American and fully human. My leadership is respected. It's the decolonizing, indigenizing, and therefore, humanizing with just processes that has brought about this healing, stewardship, and re-building of community and for Perseverance Theatre. If you aren't sure if you should go headlong into these processes of organizational change that you know need to happen, as theaters continue to struggle hard and many have suffered closure, I say, don’t wait to start! You will reclaim your own humanity by doing it. It's not without its challenges and struggles, but it's absolutely rewarding and worth it for your teams and communities. It is sustainable well beyond the old patriarchal, supremacist, exploitative processes and models. Through our theater-making, we can and must be changemakers for the health, wellbeing, and collective liberation of our communities and ecologies.
NEA: How has your audience been? I know that's something people around the country have been struggling with at this reopening moment.
ISHII: When you can hire your own local people, which is our goal, to get back to hiring primarily in Alaska, it strengthens your communities. We are working on investing back into our communities and sharing resources and artistic and technical training with other arts and culture organizations. This is not just about pandemic recovery; it’s the right thing to do to bring along the next generations. It’s also part of decolonizing and re-indigenizing—build for the next seven generations. Naturally people come because they want to witness and support their own family and friends on stage, and this builds audiences. However, it’s also so life-giving to see the empowerment and accomplishments of your family, your community reflected back to you through the storytelling.
So, to your question, like many theaters throughout the country, our audiences have been building back slowly, partly I think, because of health [concerns]. We probably masked longer than most since we live and work in a remote place and most everyone feels a responsibility not to be the cause of overwhelming our health care systems and resources. We have changed our seating so that performers can be distanced enough to be unmasked, with respect to and in partnership with our audiences. We will also continue to do some video on demand (VOD), because we know that has been supportive of our community members that are vulnerable health-wise and who have accessibility challenges. VOD has helped us reach more of our Alaskan and Alaska Native populations and we are grateful we could share arts education and suicide prevention programming through our virtual productions and study guides/curriculums. Our audiences are returning slowly but steadily and the more we season plan with our communities and their conversations in mind first, the better for our overall health and wellbeing, our sustainability.
NEA: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you feel is important to have in this conversation?
ISHII: Keep writing plays. We need your voices, and your stories truly support our collective liberation. We're getting more and more diverse voices here at the Valdez Theatre Conference –it’s so vital. Also, please get outside, introduce yourself as a guest to the Native land where you are. Share your gratitude and rekindle your relationship to the land; it is an important participant in your life and wellbeing.
The National Endowment for the Arts has been critical to our recovery, our resilience, and your session to help folks know how to apply for grants was wonderful. It was great to see artists attend so they know to approach us leaders of these artistic and cultural organizations to partner with them and make sure that we can get the resources to collaborate and support their work. Thank you for coming, it meant the world. And we hope that you'll continue to have a presence with us here in Alaska.
Greg Reiner joined the National Endowment for the Arts as the director of theater and musical theater starting in September 2015. Reiner manages NEA grantmaking in theater and musical theater and represents the agency to the field.