Where the Sea Breaks Its Back weaves puppetry, video installation, recorded interviews, and yuraq (Yup’ik drum and dance) in a collage of striking contemporary and historical encounters between indigenous Alaska Native communities and newcomers to the Great Land. The title of the piece—an English translation of the Aluutiq indigenous word “Alaska”— serves as a metaphor for the personal and cultural clashes at its heart. Performers Ryan Conarro and Gary Upay’aq Beaver (Central Yup’ik) – along with puppeteer Justin Perkins – use movement, stories, and puppetry to reveal a series of little-known historical narratives of collisions between people and cultures in Alaska. These histories, at times humorous or tragic, juxtapose against Beaver and Conarro’s own memories. Through storytelling and yuraq, they recount their shared memories and unfold their personal perspectives as “insider” (represented by Beaver as a 21st-center indigenous artist and culture-bearer) and “outsider” (Conarro, confronting the ramifications of his choice to move to Alaska and his presence as non-Native artist, journalist, and educator).
Where the Sea Breaks Its Back began development in 2015. In 2016, Chong and Conarro completed 4 weeks of statewide Alaska travel to conduct research and record urban and rural interviews, collaborating with Beaver and with numerous Alaskan artists and partner organizations. These interviews weave as a soundscape throughout the performance, layering perspectives on what it means to be “Alaskan.” That audio material along with post-show audience interviews will create an archive of community reflections on identity and belonging. Audience and community engagement is central to Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, and will be facilitated through these interviews as well as post-show story circles and workshops in storytelling, puppetry, and yuraq.
Where the Sea Breaks Its Back will be presented Off-Broadway in October 2017 at La MaMa ETC in New York, and will tour in Alaska and nationally with support from NEFA’s National Theater Project.
Gary Upay'aq Beaver
Created by: Ping Chong, Ryan Conarro, and Gary Upay'aq Beaver (Central Yup'ik)
Directed by: Ping Chong
Puppet Design: Justin Perkins
Sound Design: Lucy Peckham
Video and Projection Design: Kate Freer
Lighting Design: Marika Kent
Costume Design: Stefani Mar
Ping Chong (director and co-creator) is an internationally acclaimed theater artist and pioneer in the use of media in the theater. Since 1972, he has created over 90 works for the stage, which have been presented at major festivals and theaters worldwide. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a USA Artist Fellowship, two BESSIE awards, two OBIE awards, and the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. In 1992, he created the first work in the Undesirable Elements series of community-based oral history projects of which there have now been over 50 productions. His puppet theater work Cathay: Three Tales of China was commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for its Festival of China in 2005 and was presented at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, New Victory Theatre, the Vienna Festival and the World Puppetry Festival in Chengdu, PRC. His adaptation of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood was presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 2010. Theatre Communications Group has published two volumes of his plays: The East West Quartet and Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater.
Ryan Conarro (performer and co-creator) is a performance maker, teaching artist, and facilitator of community engagement. He is Artistic Collaborator and Community Projects Associate at Ping Chong + Company. Ryan has lived and made work in Alaska since 2001, where he’s a Perseverance Theatre company member, co-founder of Generator Theater, occasional documentary radio producer, and a member of the Alaska State Arts Council Arts Education Advisory Committee. Ryan is a Resident Artist with the international ensemble Theater Mitu. His work has been presented at the Kennedy Center, the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, the Oregon Contemporary Theatre, the Stonington Opera House, Gainesville Theatre Alliance, and numerous venues in Alaska. As a puppeteer, he's trained at the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference and Boulder’s Juniper Tree School of Puppetry Arts. In 2010-11, Ryan was director and lead teaching artist for Lower Kuskokwim School District's interdisciplinary arts project Qanemciput Piliaput-llu: Our Stories & the Things We Made, weaving puppetry, performance, digital storytelling, and yuraq (Yup'ik drum and dance), with Gary Upay'aq Beaver as a collaborator. Ryan received the TCG Leadership U Fellowship; a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award; and the Ann Shaw Fellowship for arts education. MFA Interdisciplinary Arts, Goddard College; BFA, NYU. www.ryanconarro.com
Gary Upay’aq Beaver (Central Yup’ik) (performer and co-creator) was born in Bethel, Alaska and raised in his family’s village of Kasigluk. He began learning yuraq (Yup’ik drum and dance) as a child at Kasigluk's Akiuk Memorial School. He credits four elders as his primary teachers: Kalila Slim, Wassilie Berlin, Wassilie Nicholas, and Alexie Nicholas. Gary is leader of the Kasigluk dance group and has taught yuraq at schools throughout southwest Alaska, including Akula Elitnaurviat, Akiuk Memorial School, Yupiit School District, and for the village of Akiak. He was lead drummer, singer, and dancer for the multidisciplinary event “This Is Who We Are” in 2011 at Bethel Cultural Center, a performance of traditional Yup’ik stories as songs, dances, theatrical pieces, and digital stories, a year-long project directed by Ryan Conarro. He has performed traditional and contemporary work in Bethel at the annual Cama’i Festival and Mink Festival; in Anchorage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention; on Quyana Alaska television; and in villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
Justin Perkins (puppet designer and puppeteer) is a puppet artist and performer who has appeared in works by David Neumann, Tom Lee (Shank's Mare, LaMama, Ringling International Arts Festival), Lake Simons, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Patti Bradshaw, Puppet Cinema, Unitards, imnotlost, as well as multiple works at Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, Cosmic Bicycle, PuppetBloc at Dixon Place, Sinking Ship Productions' Puppet Playlist and more. As a puppet designer and maker, he has built for BAM (The Hard Nut promotional videos), Basil Twist (Sisters' Follies, ongoing studio work), regular performances for Friends' Seminary's theater program, TheaterWorksUSA, New York Musical Theater Festival, New York Children's Theater Festival, Swedish Cottage, Unitards. He created and directed a puppet and live video adaptation of Gulliver's Travels during St. Ann's Warehouse's Puppet Lab 2014. Justin studied theater at Vassar and Sarah Lawrence Colleges, and is a teacher of puppetry, theater and filmmaking in schools and community centers around New York. www.justinaperkins.com
Lucy Peckham (sound design) lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and is a composer/arranger, live engineer, and field recordist, as well as sound designer. Her work is characterized by her musicality, and her delight in recording and utilizing unique sounds in her designs. Some of her favorites have been collected at museums such as the Spark Museum of Electric Invention, the Antique Vibrator Museum, and the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum. Lucy has recorded environmental and human-made sounds on three continents, but Alaska remains her chosen aural home. As an engineer, she recently live-mixed the first opera ever produced in Nepal (Arjuna’s Dilemma) for One World Theatre, Kathmandu. Regional theatres include Perseverance Theatre, Intiman, and the Old Globe Theatre. Documentary work includes Alaska’s Marine Highway. Lucy is a recipient of an L.A. Critics Circle Dramalogue Award. www.both-ears.com
Katherine Freer (video installation and projections) is a multimedia designer working in theater, film, and installation. Her work is driven by the love of storytelling and the desire to turn her wildest imaginings into reality. Her background in film and computer science combine to generate work that is not only aesthetically beautiful, but pushes the boundaries of conventional theatrical video. Frequent collaborators include Tim Bond, Liz Lerman, Ping Chong, Kamilah Forbes, Stein | Holum Projects, Kamillah Forbes, Andrew Scoville, and Tamilla Woodard. Katherine is a Helen Hayes nominee and an Innovative Theater Award nominee. In addition to designing video for the stage, her installation work has been presented nationally and internationally. Venues include the National Building Museum, the Hammond Museum, 3LD Art & Technology Center, Front Room Gallery, and the World Wide Words Festival (Denmark). Her early video work includes Beatbox Flute Inspector Gadget Remix, a simple yet popular video with over 28 million views on YouTube and People's Choice Award nomination. Kate has taught master classes at Harvard University, Syracuse University, New York University, University of Iowa, and Albany High School. She is a member of United Scenic Artists Local USA 829 and a founding member of Imaginary Media. www.katherinefreer.com
Marika Kent (lighting) is a New York City based Lighting Designer of new and classic plays, musical theater, dance, experimental theater, puppetry and site-specific performance. Her work has appeared in venues including HERE Arts Center, The Barrow Group, New York Live Arts, The New Ohio Theater, Abrons Arts Center, The National Black Theater, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, The Brick, Theater for the New City and Harlem School of the Arts. As an Assistant Lighting Designer, she has worked in venues including The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York Theater Workshop, Dallas Theater Center (TX), CenterStage (MD), The Public Theater, The Cutler-Majestic Theater (MA), Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theater Club, The Acorn Theater at Theater Row and Lincoln Center Theater. BFA: New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. www.marikakent.com
Stefani Mar (costumes) is an artist, textile designer & costume designer based in New York City. She has had the pleasure of designing costumes for Ping Chong in a variety of different projects since the 90s, including Cathay (Seatle Repertory Theatre, New Victory Theatre, Kennedy Center); Reason (Market Theatre); Pojagi (La Mama and DMZ 2000, Korea); After Sorrow (La Mama); I Will Not be Sad in This World (La Mama). Over the years, she has worn many hats, working in the governmental, non-profit & for profit sectors. She was nominated for the Henry Hewes Design Award for Cathay.