In its 41 years of delivering professional theater to Alaska, Perseverance Theater has a new artistic director for the first time since 2007.
In his 12 years as the creative force with Perseverance Art Rotch, who began working with the company in 1988, served most of it in almost impossible dual roles as artistic director and managing director before getting some relief in the latter last year as Perseverance underwent significant overhaul. He stepped down in June and in July, a replacement on the artistic side was named in at least an interim fashion in Leslie Ishii, a longtime performer on stage and screen, most notably in the latter as Laura Straume, the wife of in seasons 4 and 5 on the ABC hit series ‘Lost’.
“I’ve worked with Art Rotch before as director. I’d come up for his educational programs. I’ve always had a good relationship with Art and I wanted to support his stepping back,” Ishii said. “I onboarded July 1 and Frank Delaney, our new managing director a month before me. We just dove in and we’re working to keep operations going. It’s full-steam ahead.”
Ishii said she’s applied for the permanent position and is optimistic about the company’s future.
“I have thrown my hat in the ring, but I’m always of the mindset that Perseverance hires who they feel is right for them,” Ishii said. “I’m excited about this new season… We need more Native American voices in American theater… and Perseverance is giving a lot of Native artists their start. They do a lot of equity work and to get behind that mission is a joy.”
Shortly after Ishii came on board as interim artistic director, the theater made a bold lineup change for the coming season, canceling the classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — which it had done two years earlier — because of outdated and racist language used in the play, replacing it instead with ‘Silent Sky’, the story of a turn-of-the-century female astronomer not allowed to use telescopic equipment at the Harvard Observatory because she’s a woman.
“Silent Sky is really causing an inferno, centering on marginalized voices,” Ishii said. “It’s based on an actual figure, Henrietta made significant discoveries in the astronomy world and was one of the first women to work in the department… (Playwright Lauren) Gunderson has taken real history and just done a fantastic job with it. It’s a good, solid play. There’s humor, a love interest, but it’s also got some wonderful and interesting research about science and industry.”
Silent Sky closes the Anchorage Season running, Feb. 28-March 6. Prior to that, Perseverance puts on its holiday standard, ‘A Christmas Carol’, which always plays to packed houses. The theater just concluded its first show of the 2019-2020 season with Steve Martin’s ‘The Underpants’ and starting on Oct. 25, Ishii will direct ‘Devilfish’, the season’s Alaska-themed show written by Alaska Native Vera Starbard.
A Devilfish is a sea monster akin to a Kraken of Scandinavian lore, and Starbard’s story takes place in prehistoric Alaska with a young girl named Aateinatu as its protagonist. Starbard’s last Perseverance piece was ‘Our Voices Will Be Heard’, which tackled the issue of domestic violence and child abuse in Native communities.
“I look at how we’re centering on voices that are often underrepresented,” Ishii said. “‘Our Voices Will Be Heard’ was a real breakthrough in talking about domestic violence. Vera is a powerful voice on that subject, coming from that community. It’s a voice we haven’t heard — certainly in the American theater. A Native voice addressing those issues is game-changing.”
Ishii believes pieces like Starbard’s can help not only Perseverance succeed, but also promote the betterment of life in Alaska as a whole.
“I really believe theater is transformative and needed for our times,” she said. “It brings a sense, at times, of healing, justice, themes and issues of underrepresented voices to the table. We all get to grow and learn and be expanded in that live performance. It’s a conversation with the community.”