When Anchorage playwright Vera Starbard decided to create a play drawn from being sexually abused by a relative as a child, she knew the writing would be hard. But she wasn't entirely prepared for the trauma of the rehearsals.
"It was exciting to see words that I wrote come to life," she said, "but difficult to see people saying things that came from the most hurtful time of my life, recreated every night."
The play, "Our Voices Will Be Heard," is about a Tlingit family in the 1800s. The mother discovers that someone in the family has abused her daughter. But the abuse isn't the subject of the play, said Starbard, whose heritage is Tlingit and Dena'ina. Instead, "The play looks at the fallout that happens when the mother wants justice and tries to protect her daughter."
"Voices" debuted in Juneau last month and will be presented in Sydney Laurence Theatre from Feb. 19-28. Perseverance Theatre has workshopped a number of plays by Alaska Native playwrights and staged classics like "Macbeth" and "Moby Dick" from an indigenous angle in the past. "But we're pretty sure this is the fist Native-written and Native-themed play to get a full production on the main stage," Starbard said.
Starbard was born in Craig. Her father was an Alaska State Trooper. From age 4 to 8 she was sexually abused by an uncle, she said. "He was abusing other cousins, too. But when Mom found out, she was the first parent to do something about it. She got on the phone. She was really worked up. She was so angry that I thought she was mad at me. She called Dad, who was on a boat at the time. Then she called the troopers. Then she called the social workers.
"Then she told me it was not my fault."
Story becomes theater
Her uncle was sentenced to two months in jail. In the years to come, Starbard became a vocal advocate for issues like establishing the state sexual offender registry and enacting greater protection for victims. She wrote letters to officials and testified at legislative hearings.
She graduated from Anchorage East High School in 2000. She studied journalism briefly before switching to education and receiving a degree in child development from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She worked as a nanny and Head Start teacher.
In her spare time she wrote brochures and made graphic designs for various charities and nonprofit groups. Eventually, her volunteer work landed her a public relations job with the Southcentral Foundation, where she worked for eight years. The job brought her in contact with actress Irene Bedard, who introduced her to her future husband, Bedard's brother Joseph.
While working different day jobs, Starbard kept up her own explorations into creative writing. "When I was little, I told my parents I was going to be a poet," she said. "Mom always said I had a story to tell."
She heard about the Native Playwright Project at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and decided to recast a short stories she'd written about her abuse, "Eyes of Love," as a script. The play was accepted and she was paired with Lakota director Larissa FastHorse as her mentor.
"Theater was new to me," Starbard said. "I was hooked. Here were all these theater types, Natives, writers, creative artists. I said to myself: 'These are my people!'"
In the development process, it was read at the Native Voices program at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. The Autry is the country's only equity theater company dedicated to producing new work by Native Americans.
Randy Reinholz, the Autry's producing artistic director, "fell in love with it," Starbard said. "He had it workshopped in Los Angeles and San Diego. He sent an email to Art Rotch," artistic director at Perseverance, who offered to produce it. Based in Juneau, Perseverance was in a unique position to cast a number of Tlingit actors in the roles. The performers also include professional actors from Lower 48 tribes. Starbard called it "a crazy good cast." FastHorse is the director.
Turning a short story into a full-length play involved a plethora of creative decisions and on-the-job learning experiences. "Eyes of Love," which Starbard wrote when she was 18, approached the subject from the perspective of the victim. Starbard was no longer satisfied with that. In an interview published in the Juneau periodical Capital City Weekly, she dismissed familiar theatrical treatments of sex abuse as either the "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."
She felt blocked at making the victim the central character and the violence the central action. There was more to the situation. "In some ways what happened after was more traumatic for me than the abuse itself," she said.
The abuser was related to her mother. When she went to the authorities with her accusation and charges came down on the uncle, the family blamed, rejected and ostracized her, Starbard said.
"I shifted the point of view from myself to my mother," she said. "I was about to become a stepmother myself. I was going to be responsible for children. It definitely changed my perspective."
Changing perspective brought the play to life. "The family became real people," she said. "In my original play, the antagonist had one line. I really didn't want him to have a voice. But that doesn't work in theater."
Without words, she discovered, the actors in the role of the uncle could do nothing more than project their character physically. "They made him creepy. But that's wrong. In real life, people don't trust their children to creepy people."
She set the action in a different setting and time than her own. This ostensibly made it more specifically Tlingit, but it also made it more timeless and universal. Starbard said the decision to place the action in the 19th century, in an imaginary village people by a fictional clan, was necessary to distance herself from the drama. "There is safety in putting it in the past," she said.
"Voices" was not just her first play, but her first foray into stagecraft on any level. She had a lot to learn about the nuts and bolts of theater. "I moved the 'reveal scene' further back," she said. "Originally, it happened early on and people spent most of the play talking about it."
In early drafts she had 20 characters. "Larissa mentioned the cost of actors. Do it if you want to, she said, but nobody's going to read this." The staged version has only eight people.
She found out that even small additions can create big headaches. "I wrote a couple of lines that involved two dolls. It turned out to be very complicated. Two little dolls! It meant someone had to go out and buy the dolls. Someone had to store the dolls. Someone had to make sure they were in the right spot onstage and offstage. I love artifacts and I had them all over the place. Now that I know about props, I'll be more careful the next time I write a play."
And she reduced the running time from two hours to 90 minutes. "There were a lot of rewrites," she said. "But it was a lot more cutting than adding. I'm a pretty good editor."
In fact, Starbard's day job is as editor of First Alaskans magazine. Ironically, she arrived at the publication as the previous editor, David Holthouse, was transitioning out.
"He said he had a play in New York that would be taking up a lot of his time," she recalled. "I said, 'Oh? I have a play. What's yours about?'"
Holthouse's "Stalking the Bogeyman," which will be onstage at the University of Alaska Anchorage from April 1-24, is also about sex abuse of a minor and based on his own experience. But, in an opposite approach to Starbard's, Holthouse tells it from an almost reportorial first-person perspective with no fictional distancing.
"David's a very courageous writer," Starbard said. "I like metaphor."
But she found Holthouse's story important to telling her own. "There's a stereotype that says, of course you've been abused. You're Native. It's cultural," she said. "But here's a case where the victim is not Native, not female. It's not cultural. It's universal."
Her poetic inclination reveals itself not just in the fictionalization of the characters in "Voices," but in the structure of the drama.
"It's really three plays," she said. "There's the literal story of the mother and the daughter. Then there's a myth I made up, the myth of Wolverine and Bear Mother, told by the storyteller," a narrator who comments on the action, chorus like, and whom Starbard considers the closest thing to her own voice in the script.
Finally, there's a purely visual story told without words. Instead, symbols are used that most viewers might miss, but which Tlingits will recognize. "That's artistic indulgence, I suppose," she said.
But in a play, unlike a short story or a novel, there are limits to such indulgence. A play is a multifaceted collaboration. Tlingit musician Ed Littlefield turned the poems in the play into songs. The design consultant was Juneau artist Rico Worl. The clan design for the fictional Wolverine house was created by her father.
"Yeah, it was my story, but it feels so empowering to have everyone taking ownership of it," she said. "As a writer, you feel protective of your work. But theater requires you to trust a lot of other people.
"The payoff of that trust is to hear the actors deliver my lines better than they sounded in my own head. On opening night I watched and could see that the people onstage were not my family. The characters had their own story to tell now. It was a gratifying experience."
After the Juneau premiere, Starbard said, people from the audience who had also been abused would come up and talk with her. "The interesting thing was they didn't want to talk about my play. They wanted to talk about their own story."
She has been presenting workshops that use art and storytelling for healing. Sixty people of all ages showed up for one held at the Youth and Elders Conference in Anchorage last October. Workshop participants have the opportunity to draw pictures expressing their feelings and share stories.
"You don't feel so alone," she said. "Telling helps you."
OUR VOICES WILL BE HEARD will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19-28, at Sydney Laurence Theatre. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING, a post-show open discussion with the playwright at director, will take place at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21, at Sydney Laurence Theatre.
VOICES OF THE ARTISTS, a panel discussion with Vera Starbard, Jack Dalton and Irene Bedard about the changing world of Alaska Native performance and art, 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 22, at the Anchorage Museum Auditorium. Use the 7th Ave. entrance.
TALES FOR A DARK WINTER, staged readings of Alaska Native plays, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, in Sydney Laurence Theatre, a pay-as-you-can event.
FRY BREAD FRIDAY, a fry bread reception with the playwright for ticketed audience members presented by First Alaskans Institute and Huna Heritage Foundation prior to the 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday, Feb. 26 in the lobby of the Sydney Laurence Theatre.
HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING, a post-show open discussion, following the performance on Friday, Feb. 26 in Sydney Laurence Theatre.
HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING WORKSHOP, led by Vera Starbard, will be given at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Anchorage Public Library Room in the Mall at Sears.
STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, a reading of David Holthouse's play by the cast of the upcoming UAA production at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, in Sydney Laurence Theatre.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing