Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 7:42 PM on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Acting out your sense of place

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff Writer

It's different for everyone: the place where you are most happy, most authentically yourself, the place you feel home, complete.

As Alaskans we share a spectacular landscape and a closeness to our surroundings that's not so accessible to people Outside.

The feelings that spring from this unique situation are translated onto canvas, into songs, through stories.

Acting out those stories can communicate even more meaning, as a troupe of performers from the southern United States showed Homer residents during a December workshop.

"It's important for us to tell what we love and why we love it," said Gloria Baxter of Voices of the South theater company. "We need reminding of what there is to feel deeply about."

Baxter is the director and screenplay writer of "Wild Legacy," a play about Mardy and Olaus Murie's experiences in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the 1950s. Voices of the South toured Homer and other Alaska communities, performing "Wild Legacy" and doing workshops. "Wild Legacy" is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Showing tonight at 6 p.m. at the Homer Theatre is the latest event in the series, "America's Wildest Refuge: Discovering the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," a one-hour documentary that provides a large-scale vision of the refuge. Admission is $5 and supports the Friends of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and Alaska Geographic (see adjacent story).

"Wild Legacy" gives a more intimate and personal view of the Arctic refuge. It focuses on one chapter of Mardy Murie's book, "Two in the Far North," where Mardy, her husband, Olaus, and three young scientists spent the summer of 1956 in the Sheenjek River area, in the southeast part of what is now ANWR.

The program for "Wild Legacy" says Murie's book reads like "a mosaic of small moments and heightened experiences shared with others — of states of mind and insights that come and go in moments of solitude." The production, it reads, is a meditation on what Olaus would call the "intangible values" of wilderness.

Though none of the seven members of Voices of the South had ever been to Alaska, they produced a compelling interpretation of the far north.

"It's amazing. It works better than most plays produced because it is so moving," said Jerry Dale McDonnell, a long-standing figure in Alaska theater who served as the company's driver, booking agent and guide.

McDonnell said the play is like a master's class in stage movement and direction. "Instead of focusing on plot development or a climactic character drama, it focuses on the sounds, sights, feelings of the place," he said.

With Voices of the South, Baxter pioneered this method of playwriting and performance, which joins two of her passions — theater and wilderness.

"Only in the past few years have I discovered the magical confluence of two loves," Baxter said.

To develop the screenplay, Baxter and the group worked the text, stage movement and media (props and sounds) back and forth until the combined effect told the story.

"It's a total ensemble creation," said Jerry Dye, the artistic director of the play.

Two backpacks, five journals and a big white sheet are all the props used to create a believable arctic environment. A guitar and voices, sounds made with bodies thumping on themselves or on a stage surface is the sum of the soundtrack.

Through their process, the ensemble has developed a handy toolbox for communicating deep feelings about places, which they shared with a dozen Homer residents during a workshop the day before the play.

Dye said that Voices of the South workshops are about getting people to connect with the place they are.

"How many different ways can you show something beautiful, so everything has a special spark? So each one is unique?" he asked.

The answer came as workshop participants honed in on those moments that made them feel the most connected with their place. Using "tools" like gaze, levels, unison, transition, sound, sensory details and "tak," the final pop of a movement, participants translated their own scenes into theatrical art for the group.

Summing up the troupe's toolbox, Dye said, "the devil is in the details. You get a lot of mileage from the specificity of things."

Since leaving Alaska, "Wild Legacy" has shown in the company's hometown of Memphis and at a symposium celebrating the refuge held by the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia.

The group is scheduling tour dates in other states as the celebration of the arctic refuge's 50th year continues.