"When you work on a show with people, you become really close with them,” Rachel Blackwell said, summarizing how her extensive involvement in Fairbanks’ theater scene has helped her find her place in the community and made her a prominent member of it. “It’s like moving in with somebody for six weeks. Over the years of working on shows, I’ve made lots of my best friends. And we continue to work on shows together. It makes it really fun.”
Blackwell, who is directing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” for the Fairbanks Drama Association this month, has been a driving force in many productions, both on and off stage, since she first arrived in Alaska. Her commanding stage presence and often uproariously funny performances have made her an audience favorite.
Yet in conversation, one quickly learns she’s as focused on encouraging others to be involved in artistic endeavors as she is on her own work, pointing out that, “In Fairbanks, we’re almost over-saturated with opportunities. If you want to do something, just show up and be ready to do it and there’s room for you.”
Blackwell found her place in Alaska by sheer happenstance. Raised in the South, she was in a few theatrical shows as a child. But it was during her freshman year of high school in Atlanta that she determined to make her future on the stage. After appearing in a performance of “Crimes of the Heart,” she dove in to her school’s drama club, including a term as president, and laid plans to attend college at New York University as a drama major.
Unfortunately for her at the time, but luckily for Fairbanks, she was not accepted into NYU. And since it was the only college she’d applied to, she found herself in a pinch. Then, she said, “I found UAF in a thespian’s magazine and it said they had a 100% acceptance rate. I said, ‘Yes! I’m going to do this. I’m going to go to Alaska.’ And my parents thought I was crazy.”
She knew nothing about Alaska at the time, but upon arrival in 2003 she found a small theater department that offered a full range of opportunities to learn all aspects of stage performance and production, as well as a group of people who welcomed her in. “There was space for me,” she said.
Blackwell earned her degree in theater performance in just three years, while at the same time appearing in shows both on and off campus. Then, seeking to further her skills, she headed for the New School in New York City to obtain a master’s.
After being in a small program where she could try her hand at everything, however, Blackwell felt limited in New York, where many students vied for the same spots and even nonstudents were cast in roles, taking away opportunities she felt she was paying to have access to. So in 2008 she chose to move on, and knew where she wanted to be. “I decided to come back to Fairbanks as opposed to going home. Almost immediately when I got back into town I got involved in a show at the university.”
Since that time, Blackwell’s life has only grown busier. She earned an MBA from UAF, then decided to get a teaching certificate as well. She went to work as an elementary teacher (she teaches a multi-age class at Ladd Elementary) and obtained a master’s in educational leadership.
Yet even as her professional life was taking off, her theater life was also gaining momentum. Along with appearing in at least one FDA production a year, she teaches drama to kids in summer camp, helped start the annual Rocky Horror Picture Show performances (she remains heavily involved), added standiup comedy to her repertoire, and launched Naked Stage Productions, her burlesque company.
Blackwell first encountered burlesque at the Palace Theater around the time she returned to Fairbanks. “I saw it and said, ‘That’s fun.’ It was dirty jokes and innuendo and I was all about it. So I decided I wanted to put something together.”
She set to work recruiting others to get onstage, making her shows community events. And while elsewhere burlesque often ends in performers stripping, Blackwell focuses on production values, chooses a theme for each show, and makes it about humor rather than full body reveals. “They call it the art of the tease,” she explained. “So for me that’s the way I like to keep it.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, Blackwell is currently teaching an improv class to fourth through eighth graders at Ladd, where she has found that boisterous kids are especially well suited for this style of comedy. She said it gives them an outlet for their energy while learning self-discipline in the process. “Some kids may be a behavior issue in the classroom, but they get in there and they really shine. They got to get up and do something silly and crazy, and it’s encouraged.”
Kids also make up the bulk of the large cast for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” which opens this Friday at Hap Ryder Riverfront Theater. “I’m really excited about this show,” Blackwell said. “It’s a really sweet little play.”
The story tells of some troubled kids who come and take part in the Christmas story at a church. “We get to see the Christmas story through their eyes,” Blackwell said. “Because they didn’t have any idea what it’s about. You kind of have a new appreciation for the Christmas story itself.”
She added, “The kids really do carry the show. Most of the larger roles are kids. There’s only a few adults.”
With each passing year, the perpetually active Blackwell said she feels ever more deeply a part of the community, and enjoys seeing her efforts and the work of others attract increasing support and attention. “I feel like Fairbanks has offered me so many opportunities to be involved that there’s nothing else that I want.”
Rachel Blackwell’s Naked Stage Productions website is www.nakedstageproductions.com. Tickets for the Fairbanks Drama Association’s performance of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” can be purchased through the FDA website at www.fairbanksdrama.org or AKtickets.com.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to email@example.com.