About seven years ago, Ryan Conarro was having a particularly hard time dealing with his art students in a classroom in a town on the Chukchi Sea coast.
He got a break when the day took a distinctly 49th State turn.
"I was really floundering, and the lesson got interrupted because someone raced in the room to shout that a beluga whale had been captured and killed off the shore and was being hauled into the village," Conarro recalled. "School stopped. Everybody went outside, including me, and they were hauling out this whale, and they started cutting it up and distributing it."
Conarro will tell that whale tale with video accompaniment during the multimedia show "Alaxsxa|Alaska," which will play at the University of Alaska Anchorage before traveling to the village of Kasigluk near Bethel, Nome and Homer and back to New York. (Conarro chose not to name the village where the whale was caught or other communities in the show, he said, because some of the stories contain "potentially sensitive material/experiences.")
Conarro, who grew up all over the Lower 48 as an Army brat, has spent more than a decade teaching and working as a radio reporter in rural Alaska. He's also active in the state arts scene and is a member of Juneau's Perseverance Theatre.
In "Alaxsxa|Alaska," Conarro plays himself, William Seward and many more characters.
The theatrical piece about the collision of cultures mixes puppetry, video projections, storytelling and Central Yup'ik drumming and dancing to create a collage of Conarro's encounters and Alaska historical moments.
"You can almost think of the show as being a kind of prose poem or free association about Alaska," said co-director Ping Chong of New York-based theater company Ping Chong + Company, which produced the show.
Ping Chong, a National Medal of the Arts recipient who has also directed shows about Korea and Vietnam, said the non-chronological show is essentially about the relationship of outsiders and insiders and all the surprises, tragedies and issues that result from them.
He said he saw Conarro's Alaska life as a perfect vehicle to express that notion from a personal angle. Conarro has been an artistic collaborator in residence and community projects associate at Ping Chong's company for three years.
Among the historical moments interwoven into the story are the Russians' first encounters with Alaska Natives, Seward buying Alaska and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Several of the encounters are treated with a satirical touch, including the scene of the Alaska purchase. Conarro plays Seward and puppeteer and performer Justin Perkins fills the role of Russian Minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl.
Conarro and Perkins each slip on one white glove to assume their characters.
"It just indicates a shift into that aristocratic" realm, he said. "It's a real send-up of the story."
After the gloves go on, Seward and de Stoeckl dance to playful Russian music before plopping down on stools to converse about the purchase, Conarro said.
"Then it ends with what we call the vaudeville dance," Conarro said. "We celebrate the purchase by having vaudeville music come on and we each don these fake two-dimensional mustaches and dance around to celebrate. It's fun. Very silly."
While conceptualizing the show, Conarro and Ping Chong quickly realized they were missing a vital ingredient.
"Once it became apparent that Ping was interested in digging in to the history of Alaska's racial and ethnic dynamics and colonial history and wanted to address that head on," it was clear they needed an Alaska Native collaborator in the production, Conarro said.
To fill that role and balance out Conarro's experiences, Conarro approached his friend Gary Upay'aq Beaver, a Central Yup'ik dance and drum leader from Kasigluk.
Beaver said he was initially reluctant to join the show, but when he got the full picture of what Conarro and Chong were aiming for, he decided participating would be beneficial to his community.
"It's educational and it's bringing back the past. Some people, even if they're educated, they forget about it," Beaver said. "I'm excited, especially for my village of Kasigluk. My family really wants to watch the show."
His relatives will get to see Beaver relive essential events from his own past, including a triumphant moose hunt with his uncle when Beaver was 15.
"It brings me back to my first catch with my uncle and that memory is still in my heart," he said.
Beaver said he translates some of the show's dialogue into Yup'ik onstage. He also performs traditional drumming and dancing during some scenes, including the part recalling the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Beaver's involvement helps to frame the lessons the show seeks to impart.
"I came here and chose this place, stuck my metaphorical flag in the ground," Conarro said. "Part of the question I ask in the piece is what happens when you do that and you're new or someone else does that and you're not new, and what is the dynamic between those two people? Do I have the freedom to choose to come and go as I please? And what kind of privilege is that?"
Parts for puppets
The ultimate Alaska insider is represented in puppet form.
The full-body form puppet known as Indigenous Man is operated by Conarro and Justin Perkins. Indigenous Man is kind of an "Everynative," Connaro explained.
"He represents an indigenous man through history. He doesn't have a lot of detailed features, so he can represent anyone in a way," Conarro said. "He has a couple of scenes that move him through time. In the first one he's hunting seals with traditional tools and in the next one you meet him again and he's got a mini snowmachine and he's stopping at the Native store in the village and he's a contemporary indigenous person … The puppets represent all kinds of things."
Conarro added that puppetry plays an important part in one of the show's central visual metaphors.
“There’s a key story about a fox and a fox hunt. It was an experience I had,” Conarro said. “The fox is a puppet and Justin Perkins is operating it while I tell the story. It’s a three-dimensional wooden puppet. It’s beautiful.”
Conarro said he's thrilled that the show is finally ready to be presented to the state it represents.
"The fact that we're going to have the ability to perform in New York and Kasigluk and many places in between will embody what the piece is about: people from very different places encountering each other," Conarro said. "It's going to continue to reflect on itself and more stories will be generated, so we'll probably have to make another show after this."
ALAXSXA | ALASKA
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: UAA Harper Studio, Fine Arts Building, 3700 Alumni Drive.
Tickets: $19.99 at www.artsuaa.com