PUBLISHED: 5:07 PM on Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Finding the future of Perseverance
Juneau's Perseverance Theater is known for new works. At least 60 have premiered at the theater since its founding nearly three decades ago. That includes the Pulitzer Prize winner, "How I learned to Drive" and this fall, "Yeast Nation," a musical by Tony Award winning writers.

Yeast Nation may be an important work for Perseverance, but it comes at challenging time for the theater. Artistic director P.J. Paparelli left shortly before the show closed in early November. Veteran production director Jeffrey Herman resigned over the summer. A national search is underway to fill both positions. The positions pay in the mid thirty thousand dollar range, and require candidates excited by new work and casting local actors, according to theater officials. The new recruits will help chart the future for an important Alaska institution.

Photo by Cam Byrnes
  Perseverance Theatre is know for bringing new work the stage, such as "Yeast Nation," which premiered in Juneau in October. From left: David Meyers, Salissa Cooper and Enrique Bravo.
A night after Yeast Nation premiered in the capital city, its writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann spoke to an audience at a pre-show lecture about the show's development. They said they picked Perseverance because it's off the beaten path, and a good place to work out problems in a new show. Kotis also said they liked the theater's culture and energy. "It seemed like it would be a fun place to work, a game, bold, daring place. The fact that the company was willing to go on this journey with us gave us the courage to see it through," he said.

Perseverance founder Molly Smith started the theater with the goal of introducing new work, especially by Alaskan artists. Smith is now artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington DC. She believes Perseverance occupies a niche in the national theater scene. She says the theater needs to look to its roots to guide it into the future.

"What is special about Perseverance is this combination of professional and community working together. When we started combining the two 28 years ago, it was unusual in the country," Smith said.

Photo by Flordelino Lagundino
  Perseverance Theatre's run of The Who's "Tommy," included Salissa Cooper as the Acid Queen and Juneau boy Ian Andrews, who played a young Tommy.
She said it's tricky to bridge the gap between community and professional theaters and Perseverance should build on its strength of doing just that.

Running a small theater is hard work. Directors have to make sure enough tickets are sold for the existing performance to keep bills paid in the future. They have to nurture local talent and keep them from bolting for New York or Los Angeles. They also have to find out-of-town performers willing to spend time in Juneau. Theater directors also are grappling with the digital age, and trying to figure out what audiences want and how to deliver it.

Those were a few issues facing Jeffrey Hermann when he joined Perseverance eight years ago. He also had to help find housing for visiting performers and line up volunteers to hang lights and build sets.

Hermann's biggest accomplishment was to put Perseverance on better financial footing. He completed a million dollar endowment campaign in May 2006.

The endowment is now invested and the annual interest injected into the theater's operating budget. Large fundraising campaigns are taxing endeavors. Hermann resigned from Perseverance in July to take the managing director position at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C., also known for edgy, innovative work.

After three years in the job, artistic director Paparelli left for what he called a dream job as artistic director of American Theatre Company in Chicago. During Paparelli's tenure, Perseverance debuted a Tlingit "Macbeth" that toured to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It also premiered "Raven Odyssey," a play about Alaska Native myths.

The theater also drew criticism for bringing in out-of-town actors at the expense of local performers. Perseverance board member Maria Gladziszewski says that complaint is chronic. "This theater has always operated on an outrageous knife edge when it comes to engaging community and pursuing excellence, and will continue to do that," she observes. Gladziszewski believes there's an inherent conflict between professional and community theaters and Perseverance's ability to exploit that tension keeps it vital.

She said the theater is seeking feedback from the public on recent performances or other changes they'd like to see in Perseverance's lineup or mission.

This month the board also begins reviewing candidates for the artistic director position. The managing director job is proving harder to fill because it requires financial and management skills as well as knowledge of theater.