The theater's artistic director PJ Paparelli and outreach director Ishmael Hope adapted "Raven Odyssey," which premieres Saturday, Jan. 6, at Perseverance Theatre. Rubén Polendo of Theatre Mitu in New York City directs.
The play tells the story of an Alaska Native man on the journey of self-discovery as he is led by the trickster Raven. Paparelli and Hope traveled for several weeks in late 2005 across Alaska and talked with elders to gain knowledge about various Alaska Native cultures.
"Raven is a perfect embodiment to inspire Alaskan artists," said Hope, also a Tlingit and Iñupiaq storyteller.
"We talked with elders, dancers and leaders about Raven and how Raven connects to their lives."
Stories were documented from Iñupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Alutiiq, Aleut, Athabascan, Central Yup'ik, and Siberian Yup'ik people.
"The challenge was to bring these cultures together and also keep them definitive. Those are two goals that feel like they fight each other. The last thing we wanted to do is say that all Alaskan cultures are the same," Paparelli said.
Photo by Amanda Gragert Lily Hudson, left, and Jake Waid rehearse at Perseverance Theatre's Lemon Creek rehearsal studio.
"Raven Odyssey" is the "perfect embodiment to inspire Alaskan artists," Hope said.
"Raven is so many things. What's great, I think, about Raven is the ambiguity to lead you to explore more things. You have a lot of humor and naturalist acting going on in the mist of these stories," he said.
"This play is very much for the whole family and a cultural event. My hope for this is that it's not in a box - that it's a piece of theater that comes from this hilarious and profound stories."
Polendo said it takes the collaboration and ideas of all involved and various cultures to not only tell the story but also create other elements of the show.
"It's not just about the stories, but also the masks and music. Those things allow each of the scenes and stories to create a world in itself," he said.
Polendo said it was after hearing the performers tell the stories featured in the play that he got a feel for how to bring those stories to the stage.
"To hear the cast members voices and their families tell these stories just makes the collaboration so dynamic, and makes the challenge possible," he said.
"We look at these mythological and beautiful stories and ask bigger questions. The challenge is how to make this theatrical and keep the beauty and impact of these stories."
Paparelli said adapting the stories to a contemporary theater piece helps in closing the gap between the generations.
"There is a huge generation gap in artists and how they express their culture. I think the younger generation is respectful of the history, but want to filter art through their own voices," Paparelli said.
"How exciting for younger generations in this piece to embrace their heritage. That has been the magic - seeing the want to share cultures and worlds. We have dying cultures, and we're trying to revive the culture.
He said "Raven Odyssey" tells the stories in a different format but keeps the story in tact.
"Storytellers in each culture hear the story and change it in some way as it's retold. We've just done that in some way," he said. "The stories are not altered but the form in which they are told is different."
Paparelli said that while many theater makers are attracted to European stories, "Raven Odyssey" embodies stories that are a lesser-known part of American culture.
"Here we are in America with this incredible epic that so few people know about," he said. "This is American - truly American - that's what's exciting. We have this oral literature that you can't find in books."
Polendo said the impact of the performance is the combination of human themes as related by Raven stories.
"I hope that when people leave the piece, they react similarly to us in disbelief in that 'I can't believe everyone doesn't know this story,'" Polendo said.
"It's such a fantastic wrestling with the human experience."