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Artistic director envisions an inclusive, healing theatre

In this Oct. 30, 2019, photo, Leslie Ishii, newly named Artistic Director for Perseverance Theatre, talks about her goals for Juneau's professional theater during an interview in Juneau, Alaska. Ishii grew up in Seattle admiring the similarly rugged Pacific Northwest landscape. "There's been an Alaska connection for some time," Ishii said. (Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire via AP)

JUNEUA, Alaska — Leslie Ishii is glad to be in Juneau.

Perseverance Theatre’s new artistic director — her hiring was announced Oct. 26 — grew up in Seattle admiring the similarly rugged Pacific Northwest landscape. Plus, Ishii and the Last Frontier have crossed paths a lot over the years.

“There’s been an Alaska connection for some time,” Ishii said.

Her dad was a criminalist, and Ishii said he would often travel to Sitka to teach.

“We would hear a lot about Alaska,” Ishii said.

Later, she would work her way through graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines. She learned which stops were the best for fresh seafood and where she could find the best popcorn.

“I just grew to love Alaska,” Ishii said.

So when opportunities arose for Ishii to participate as an instructor in Perseverance’s annual Alaska Summer Theatre Intensive training sessions, Ishii said she was happy to trade in New York and Los Angeles skyscrapers for Mount Juneau and Roberts.

That connection helped lead to Ishii directing “Hold These Truths,” a play about Japanese-American activist Gordon Hirabayashi and the enduring effects of World War II-era internment camps.

“That’s my own history,” said Ishii, who is Japanese-American.

Ishii said at the time she directed “Hold These Truths” she was transitioning from acting to directing more often. Ishii’s appeared on Broadway in “Shogun;” in the movies “Fame” and Species;” and on TV in “Jane the Virgin” and “Lost;” and she has many other credits to her name.

The previous Perseverance Theatre work helped lead to Ishii being selected to direct “Devilfish,” which recently wrapped its run in Juneau.

Those connections also explain why she was chosen to be the theatre’s interim artistic director in July following the departure of Art Rotch, who served as artistic director for more than a decade.

“At that time, I said to them (the Perseverance Theatre board), it’s really important I know that you’re reaching out to local artists and indigenous artists,” Ishii said. “I was really advocating to make sure they got the right person. The community is paramount to me.”

Ishii said her vision for the theatre is an inclusive one. She wants the theatre to tell stories that have been overlooked by the theatre in the past while still appealing to the theatre’s patrons.

“We want stories from many points of view,” Ishii said.

She cited the upcoming play “With” as an example of that ethos. The play is an unlikely comedy about a senior couple feeling the effects of terminal cancer and dementia and ready to end their lives.

Ishii said many of the theatre’s regular patrons are seniors, but it’s an age group that isn’t often placed at the centre of shows.

“It’s a way to honour that part of the community,” Ishii said. “It is time for new audiences, but it doesn’t mean we don’t honour longtime patrons.”

Ishii said striving for that sort of inclusivity means self-examining for internal biases, and she’s mindful of not “criminalizing” a group of people the way institutions criminalized her relatives who were interred during World War II.

“How can I treat every single human being as fully human,” is a recurring thought, Ishii said.

“What can I do better, what can I think more deeply about?” Ishii asked.

That mindset is partly why early in Ishii’s time as interim artistic director, a decision was made to swap out a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson.

She said she heard from mental health professionals that “Cuckoo’s Nest’s” depiction of mental illness and even its title have not aged well. Also, Ishii said the show would have included 17 actors, which was a tall order for a theatre that had to furlough staff in July 2018 because of six-figure debt. An anonymous donation ensured the theatre’s 40th season happened, and its financial footing is solid enough that a potential loss of $30,000 to state budget cuts would have hurt but not killed the theatre.

Plus, the story written in 1960 by Ken Kesey depicts sexual violence and includes a mostly mute Native American character who wouldn’t seem to jibe with the theatre’s commitment to telling indigenous stories.

Ishii said it’s a goal of the theatre to do no harm, and there was a feeling that the work while well-intentioned, didn’t meet that standard.

“Silent Sky” tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a woman researcher who made profound contributions to the field of astronomy in the early 20th century.

The play’s January opening means it aligns with both the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and its subject matter means it lines up more with the sort of stories that will be told at Perseverance Theatre moving forward.

She said she has a “shortlist” of dream projects for Perseverance Theatre.

One is a version of the play “Antigone” that would include Japanese theatre techniques.

Two other works she named have closer local ties.

Ishii said she’s keen to stage both Perseverance Theatre’s playwright-in-residence Vera Starbard’s “Native Pride (And Prejudice)” and Juneau playwright and actor Frank Henry Kaash Katasse “Where the Summit Meets the Stars.”

“I love lifting up Northwest playwrights,” Ishii said.

Ben Hohenstatt, The Associated Press