By Jenny Neyman
For their Shakespeare in the Schools tour, members of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre are the ones who are supposed to be teaching, and the students and audience members in the schools and communities they visit the ones learning.
But Shakespeare has a way of shaking things up. Even dead going on 400 years now, his drama enthralls, his comedy entertains, his romance arouses (a word invention attributed to the Bard, by the way), his language inspires and his plot themes resonate.
This is the group’s third educational statewide tour, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. During the last tour, in 2011, taking a production of “Twelfth Night” around the state, performers found rapt audiences, particularly in more rural areas, but also questions of relevancy.
“When we were out in Kotzebue and Nome and some further places out, we had some questions, ‘Why are you telling these stories?’ Kind of asking, in a way, ‘Why aren’t you telling our stories?’ So we thought, ‘We need to relate this more to the people and the students and Alaska. Not only is it Shakespeare, but we’re sharing the storytelling of their experience, as well,” said Rebecca Eddy, managing director of FST.
So when it came time to prepare for the 2013 educational tour, FST wanted a play that could incorporate Alaska culture. They turned to Allan Hayton, a FST performer, who is Native Gwich’in and teaches the Native language. With his help they set the play in the 1800s in Alaska, and translated parts of it into the Gwich’in culture and language.
“So it would be not only a Shakespeare production but it would incorporate a language vitalization project, as well, because Shakespeare is all about language and that’s what we love and study,” Eddy said.
“Lear Khehkwaii” was born. In this retelling, Lear is a Gwich’in elder, struggling with the same difficulties as in Shakespeare’s original tragedy. Lear foolishly is blinded by the flattery of his oldest two daughters and divvies his kingdom between them, banishing his youngest daughter, who proves to be the only one who truly cares for him, and not his wealth. In “King Lear,” the kingdom is going through turbulent times of change, with characters losing touch with their culture and traditions in their haste to emulate the new ways. That’s not so different from what Native Alaska cultures faced after contact with Westerners.
FST set “Lear Khehkwaii” in the 1800s, around the time of missionary interaction with the Gwich’in.
“We started thinking about that time period. It’s after first contact and there are so many changes going on in their world and influences from the outside, and it all kind of plays along with the theme of ‘King Lear,’” Eddy said. “He goes through these great changes in the play and he loses everything — his family, his daughters, his land, his best friend and eventually his life. We saw some parallels between what a lot of Native cultures go through after colonization, in that they start losing things of their own history and their own culture and are forced to adapt into new ways.”
About half of the production is delivered in the Gwich’in language with translation projected in supertitles, primarily spoken by Lear, played by Hayton, his youngest daughter and best friend. The older daughters, their husbands and other characters swayed by the new Western ways, speak in English. The production is a 90-minute version of the usually three-hour play. The primary characters and story line remain, but the subplot is trimmed out and many of the secondary characters are eliminated or melded with others to maintain the integrity of the show, just without as many secondary story lines.
“There are lots of parallel stories going on so we were able to keep those going, just through one character kind of absorbing another,” Eddy said. “It’s worked out really well. Tom Robenolt, the director, did an amazing cut and melding of the story. It’s more a family drama and we tried to pare it down to that.”
The drama of this family shouldn’t be lost on modern-day audiences. Change affects King Lear’s family and culture, just as it does Lear Khehkwaii’s, and families today.
“There’s a theme about respect, how Lear divides up his kingdom and his elder two daughters completely disrespect him and he’s no longer important to them. He loses his authority and power because he gave them their own power. And that’s kind of a parallel we see between younger generations not learning or accepting or incorporating their own cultures and languages,” Eddy said.
“It’s just really hard with all of the influences of iPads, iPhones and video games, to keep language and old culture and way of life going. We thought that was an important message to the kinds, ‘You need to take care of the people who brought you into this world.’ And that’s what Lear’s youngest daughter does, even though she’s banished. She comes back to try to take care of their father,” Eddy said.
It’s been fun to see real-life similarities between the Gwich’in and Shakespeare, as well, Eddy said. For instance, missionaries in the 1800s translated the King James Bible into Gwich’in. Not only did that create a written version of the language — a rarity among Native dialects in the state — it helped preserve the language, and culture and traditions, for future generations.
Shakespeare, too, was about language, using it in new ways yet preserving the culture and traditions of his day.
And as an odd quirk of history, the King James Bible was written in Shakespeare’s time, and there is some speculation that he helped pen some of the hymns. There’s also a shared tune between a Gwich’in hymn, “God Save the Queen” and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
“It’s amazing all the coincidences,” Eddy said.
The tour began Tuesday in Anchorage. FST brings “Lear Khehkwaii” to Soldotna on Wednesday, April 10, with a workshop at Soldotna High School in the afternoon and a public performance of the play at 7 p.m. in the SoHi auditorium. Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for youth under 18, students, seniors and military.
“It’s a really unique project that they’re not going to get the chance to see any other time or anywhere else. And if you don’t know much about the Gwich’in culture, Athabasacan community of the Interior, this is a great introduction to it and will make you want to know more,” Eddy said.
The tour will continue to Homer and Seward, then across the state to Tok, Nenana, Healy, Kotzebue, Nome and Arctic Village, before returning for performances in Fairbanks in May.
For more information, visit http://www.fstalaska.org.