- Associated Press - Sunday, January 18, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - You could describe local writer Merry Ellefson’s new play “A Lifetime to Master” as being a work about homelessness, but it would be more accurate to say it’s a play about people. Based on more than 60 interviews Ellefson conducted with community members over the past three years, the play offers an opportunity to move beyond the statistics and stereotypes about homelessness in Juneau by focusing on the experiences of individuals, each of whom has their own story.

Produced by Generator Theater Company, the play opened Jan. 16 at McPhetres Hall and runs through Jan. 25.

Ellefson said when she began working on the play, she didn’t know very much about Juneau’s homeless population and had no idea what she was getting into.

“I never imagined where it would take me, and who I would meet and what I would learn,” she said. “People shared really intimate parts of their lives and really transformed the way I look at my community in ways that were both powerful and startling.”

Her journey began three years ago, on an early spring day. She’d just finished a day of skiing with her son, Arne, and was driving home along Back Loop Road when a young man stumbled into the road in front of her. She pulled over to see if he was OK and learned he was homeless.

“He was intoxicated and had nowhere to go,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow.’ I’m looking at my son and at my car - it’s not rocket science, it was just a moment of thinking, ‘This is a whole part of this community I don’t know anything about.”

She began setting up interviews with people in the community who could help her learn more - not just those who have experienced homelessness, but also service providers, political leaders, business owners and others. Over time, as her understanding of the issue grew deeper and much more complex, she became increasingly convinced of the importance of sharing the stories she was collecting with others. As a playwright who has been involved with Perseverance Theatre and other arts groups for more than two decades, her way of sharing was to write a play.

“The bottom line for me was, more people need to have more information and more people need to get engaged,” she said. “People like me.”

“There are so many issues, from personal responsibility to community responsibility, that’s what I keep learning. All the related issues overlap and I don’t understand them all, but here’s who I met - listen to these people. They’re your neighbors and this is their story.”

Ellefson said she struggled at times with the volume and intensity of the information she was hearing, but was grounded by the advice and support of other community members, such as Mariya Lovishchuk of the Glory Hole, Scott Ciambor of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, and Phil Campbell of Northern Light United Church.

Campbell’s words ultimately provided the title of her play, “A Lifetime to Master,” a phrase he borrowed from the tagline of the Othello board game: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”

“He said, ‘Here’s the way I look at my ministry,’ and he likened (the Othello tagline) to the great commandment (to love one another),” Ellefson recalled. “Why do we need institutionalized structures when really it’s just us trying to figure out how to love each other, and the best way to do that. That’s the ‘lifetime to master’ part.”

Along the way she said she was continually inspired by the bravery of community members in sharing their stories - people like Michael George Patterson, who was homeless in Juneau from the time he was 9 until he was 37, and is now an anti-smoking spokesman for the CDC. Some of the people she interviewed, like Patterson, are given their real names in the script, others are not.

Ellefson said it was also tough to strike the right balance in transforming the interviews into a play - a process she was relieved to share with collaborators including dramaturg Ryan Conarro, director Shona Strauser, and producer Flordelino Lagundino.

“The collaboration has really been the strength - and it needed to be,” she said. “I needed to do this work, transcribe people, and then I needed to let them go into these characters and let other people decide what was going to be powerful, what was going to connect.”

Strauser, who only recently finished up a long run of directing “Chicago” for Perseverance, said she felt it was important to share stories that aren’t often heard.

“I can tell you stories about people in this town, tons of them … but nobody is asking for these stories,” she said. “If people say anything about being down and out it’s like we don’t want to hear it, we back away from it. But there’s a lot of people who have done amazing things, pulled themselves out from hard places.”

Lagundino said he’d been watching Ellefson’s journey for awhile, and eventually approached her about producing the play through Generator, the company he cofounded in 2007.

“Merry admits that she was sort of unknowing of what was happening with this issue here in town - I personally am involved partly because of that same thing,” he said. “I know that it is an issue. I come from a certain amount of privilege. I don’t have to deal with these things, I can go home and if I run out of money I can go stay with my family - it’s not a problem for me. So part of being involved with this project for me was to learn, to understand what my role is in the community. Not just here in Juneau but wherever I am.”

Drawing on Ellefson’s interviews, the play presents the stories of a handful of main characters as Ellefson heard them, with others’ voices woven through via an ensemble, a group of actors on the periphery of the main action.

“It’s not linear play - there’s no beginning, middle and end, there’s no plot,” Strauser said. “It just is. It’s like if you were to take a slice of (the Rookery) right now, everybody’s different stories and what happened to them in their lifetime to get them to this point, that’s exactly what it is.”

The way the play has been staged highlights the uncomfortableness many have in approaching the topic; this isn’t a play to sit back and watch like a TV show, and then go to bed and forget about.

“It’s not going to be a traditional theater-going experience,” Strauser said.

“We are playing with theatrical elements that aren’t normally played with, aren’t tried here as often,” Lagundino agreed.

“We can’t feel comfortable,” Strauser said. “We can’t be an audience member or an actor and go to this play and be like….”

“…’Oh I saw this play and I’m going to go home now,’” Lagundino continued. “There’s a sense of wanting to interrupt the experience.”

The nature and set-up of the audience’s seats will be untraditional, and theater-goers are advised to bring weather-appropriate gear.

“The environment will be part of the play,” Strauser said.

Ellefson said the fact that people are uncomfortable discussing the topic was made clear to her during the review process for the play, which included group readings and discussions with community members involved in the issue.

“We had a reading this summer that had a particularly strong response and the conversation got really heated about protecting identities, I think it was, and I remember sitting there with Shona and Ryan thinking, ‘The intent of the play is to raise awareness, it’s not to piss anybody off ‘… But they said ‘No, what this taught us was that people in the room were uncomfortable. People can be uncomfortable for 90 minutes, that’s OK. We’re going to get in our cars and go home, go to bed, and maybe talk about it.’ I kind of knew that but I had these people step in and go, it’s OK, this is what it’s about. I think I wrestled with wanting everybody to be included and OK. But it’s not OK.”

MK MacNaughton, who plays a character based on Ellefson, said part of the uncomfortableness around the topic for her stems from not knowing what to do or what role to play in making things better.

“It’s a process,” MacNaughton said. “There isn’t a clear answer. It’s not like the play produces a finale that tells us all exactly what to do, so I feel like I’m sort of living Merry’s journey a little bit through being in the play. There’s a sense of discomfort, a heightened awareness of discomfort, as I often feel when faced with such a huge issue - what do I do about this?”

In spite of this heaviness, those interviewed said the production has made them feel more hopeful, not less, through hearing people’s stories of survival, through learning about coordinated efforts to improving the situation.

“There’s no one solution to solve homelessness in Juneau, there are really different population and issues,” MacNaughton said. “And in some ways that helps break it down. No one person can solve all of the homelessness issues in Juneau but there are a lot of people doing good work and there’s a strong coalition between them, which I love about Juneau. When we work together to share resources, things happen.”

Strauser agreed.

“We live in Juneau which is a community that is pretty bad-ass,” she said. “It’s supportive and will come to people’s aid like I’ve never seen a community do in my whole life. If we can bring more focus, more eye-opening to what is going on, then what do we turn that into? That for me is way hopeful. Because some of the stories are dark. I mean, people die from being homeless, that is just true, that’s a given … But it’s a really good opportunity for us to say, OK, what can we do next?”

“There’s some amazing stuff happening. And we have a long way to go.”

Ellefson’s project was supported by major grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and the Juneau Community Foundation, among many other groups and individuals.

In addition to MacNaughton, the cast includes Bryan Crowder, Carolyn Garcia, Jeff Hedges, Katrina Hotch, Becky Orford, Austin Tagaban, Jacob Waid and Kris Apathy.

“A Lifetime to Master” runs through Jan. 25 at McPhetres Hall, located at 4th and Gold Streets downtown. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Jan. 16-17 and 23-24, and at 2 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 18 and 25. There will also be a show Thursday, Jan. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the JACC and Hearthside Books and online at https://www.generatortheater.org/

Open community discussions will follow each show.

To read a recent fact sheet on homelessness in Juneau, visit https://dhss.alaska.gov/dbh/Documents/CAC/2013winter/VI%20InformationShee…

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Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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