FAIRBANKS — The plays of Shakespeare have been told in hundreds of different iterations in hundreds of different languages throughout the world.
The latest version of one of the Bard’s works adds an Alaska Native language to that long list with the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” told in part in the Athabascan language of Gwich’in. It’s a feat the theater has some experience with, as it produced a Gwich’in version of “King Lear” in April 2013. That production served as a learning tool for producing Shakespeare’s works in Alaska Native languages as well as a jumping off point for producing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“We learned that the project was important to communities, and they had expressed interest to see something like it again,” director Tom Robenolt said. “We learned that there was an appreciation for putting language out there in our own way. It’s always been about what can we do to help with language revitalization.”
With “Lear,” Robenolt teamed with actor Allan Hayton, who helped translate much of that play into Gwich’in. For “Midsummer,” Robenolt tapped the Alaska Native actor again to help translate the popular Shakespearean comedy and also cast Hayton as Oberon, the king of the fairies. It was a role that Hayton, an actor, arts educator and linguist who grew up in Arctic Village, did not want to pass up. As Hayton said, hearing Alaska Native languages on stage is important because more of today’s youth are hearing less of their Native tongues.
“Hearing Native Alaskan language on stage is prestige. We wanted to do it as an acknowledgement and celebration that our languages are official languages,” Hayton said, referencing the 2014 bill that former Gov. Sean Parnell signed into law making 20 Alaska Native languages official languages of Alaska.
The play doesn’t stop with Gwich’in, however. It also includes some Yupik and Tlingit, with those languages celebrating the diversity of the cast.
“The goal with casting was to get as many Alaska Native actors involved as we could,” Robenolt said. “This year we were able to expand the casting by exposing two new Alaska Native actors to the project — Erin Tripp, who is Tlingit, and Brian Wescott. Each actor brought in some of the language from their background, Tlingit and Yupik. From what I get, Brian is not Yupik but predominantly Koyukon. However, their family spoke Yupik because they were on the border with Yupik country.”
The Native American diversity in the cast grew even more with the addition of Delinda Pushetonequa, a member of the Meskwaki Nation who lives in Tama, Iowa. Pushetonequa played Regan in “King Lear,” and when she learned the theater was producing a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a mostly Alaska Native cast, she eagerly auditioned and won the coveted role of Puck.
“I never saw any Natives on stage until I went to college,” Pushetonequa, who attended Haskell Indian Nations University, the same college Hayton attended, said. “This is the part I wanted to play. The character of Puck is sort of a heyoka, which is the trickster or jester of the Dakota and Lakotas. I definitely want to give a shoutout to Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre for wanting to do this again and for supporting these projects.”
The project isn’t limited to just Fairbanks, however. Like Gwich’in “King Lear,” the theater is taking the production on the road with performances in Tok, Glennallen, Chickaloon, Healy, Nenana, Fort Yukon and Barrow starting on Monday.
“The goals for taking the show on the road is to expose kids to language, and that there are people out there that are doing this,” Robenolt, the director, said. “If a kid can see something tangible, a real person in front of them putting themselves out there, then they possibly can do something like this as well.”
With taking the show on the road and by performing in smaller venues, Hayton, too, can see the value in exposing young Native people to classic works told in their own language.
“I can see it resonating with them. Traditional Shakespeare can be hard to grasp,” Hayton said. “Theater has taken me around the world. I’ve gotten rich in friends and culture. It teaches you how to be human.”
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.
If You Go
What: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Where: Pioneer Park Centennial Center for the Arts
When: 11:30 a.m. March 4 and 5; 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 6; 7:30 p.m. March 7; 2 p.m. March 8
Cost: Visit www.fstalaska.org for ticket information.
FYI: The production is in Gwich’in with some Yupik and Tlingit as well as English. English supertitles will be provided.
Cast and Crew
Allan Hayton — Theseus/Oberon
Ben Coffroth — Demetrius/Snout/Wall
Brian Wescott — Peter Quince/Fairy
Cory Weiss-Price — Lysander/Flute/Thisbe
Delinda Pushetonequa — Philostrate/Puck
Erin Tripp — Hippolyta/Titania
Jake Waid — Bottom
John Moffatt — Egeus/Snug/Bear
Kat Wodtke — Hermia/Starveling/Moon
Sarah Mitchell — Helena/Fairy
Tom Robenolt — director
Sarah Mitchell — tour manager
Valinda Taylor — stage manager
Feb. 23 — Tok City School
Feb. 25 — Glennallen Junior/Senior High School
Feb. 27 — Ya Ne Da Ah School, Chickaloon
March 1 — Tri-Valley School, Healy
March 2 – Nenana City School
March 10 – Fort Yukon
March 13 and 14 — Barrow High School