A local playwright has spent the past few years exploring the lives of Juneau’s homeless population and the people who work with them. The result is the new play “A Lifetime to Master,” which debuted this week.
About three years ago, Merry Ellefson was driving home from cross-country skiing with her son near the Mendenhall Glacier, when she turned onto Back Loop Road and noticed a young man staggering down the street. She stopped to help, and found out he was homeless.
“He was maybe 19 or 18, and I just remember he was really intoxicated. He had nowhere to go,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to do something. I’m on a plan.’ It was just like, ‘I don’t know anything about this.'”
That incident inspired Ellefson to learn more about homelessness in Juneau. Since moving to the city 24 years ago, she’s worked on and written several plays for Perseverance Theatre. “A Lifetime to Master” is based on nearly 60 interviews she did with people about Juneau’s homeless situation.
“People who are or have been homeless,” she says. “People whose lives or jobs intersect with the homeless. A lot of members of our Juneau Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. People in the school district. Friends. I’ve overheard people at coffee shops or on the streets.”
While the play is about Juneau, Ellefson says its themes resonate beyond.
The title comes from the tagline for the board game Othello: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” Ellefson says a pastor she interviewed connected that phrase to the great commandment from the Bible: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” As she went about trying to understand homelessness in Juneau, she says she kept those two ideas in mind.
“I learned that there’s as many reasons for being homeless as there are people who are homeless,” Ellefson says. “That the issues range from poverty and economics, to family, to community responsibility, to substance abuse, to I think a third of Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness, to domestic violence. There’s a lot of issues that overlap.”
The main character in the play has Ellefson’s name and guides the audience through her interviews.
“It’s really a lot of listening to a lot of stories that are rarely heard in our community, are very hard to hear, as well as some quite uplifting stories of those people whose lives are dedicated to helping people who don’t have homes,” she says.
On a recent evening, the cast of “A Lifetime to Master” runs through lines at rehearsal in McPhetres Hall at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Juneau. The walls are covered with tarps, and actors pop up from lumpy mattresses to say their lines.
Director Shona Strauser has been involved with “A Lifetime to Master” for two years, ever since she read an early draft of the play. She says it’s the most powerful production she’s ever been part of.
“It’s touching and it’s people we know and see,” Strauser says. “You know, you’re going to see people in this play that you would see on the street or at their job.”
The Juneau Coalition on Housing and Homelessness estimates more than 500 residents of the city don’t have a permanent roof over their heads. Strauser says the cast and crew hope the play sparks community discussions about homelessness, and even inspires people to act.
“It’s in your face, this play is in your face,” she says. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s the idea that you are in this community, and that everybody is around you, and you’ve got to do something, otherwise you’re turning your back on people.”
MK MacNaughton, who plays Merry, says it’s sometimes easier to start conversations about issues like homelessness through art.
“We mostly don’t walk up to people on the street and launch into deep personal stories or ask intimate questions. So art provides that opportunity,” she says.
Michael Patterson lived on the streets from age 9 to 37, and was interviewed by Ellefson during her research. He says the play is just the “tip of the iceberg” for what homeless people go through every day, but it’s full of truth nonetheless.
“I think if we can allow this to really touch all of our hearts and come together closer as a community, you know, then we have a better chance of maybe finding a real working solution to finally do something about this problem,” Patterson says.
Generator Theater Company is producing “A Lifetime to Master.” Ellefson also received support from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, the Juneau Community Foundation and several other local businesses and nonprofits.
The play runs through Jan. 25 at McPhetres Hall.