Eighth graders in Juneau had a day at the theater this month to watch “Devilfish,” a play that tells the story of a young Tlingit girl struggling with grief and new responsibility. After the performances, cast and crew visited middle schools to answer questions and share a few tricks of the trade.
Erin Tripp, star of Devilfish, stood in the cafeteria of Juneau’s Floyd Dryden Middle School. In front of her, eighth graders sat squeezed together at lunch tables, watching Tripp cradle an invisible basket.
“OK, so your berry basket’s in your left hand. Pick a berry on your left,” said Tripp, reaching out as if to pluck a blueberry. “Put it in your basket.”
Tripp was teaching the students a berry picking dance from the play, which they had all watched a couple days before.
At the start of the show, Tripp’s character, Aanteinatu, is about their age.
Playwright Vera Starbard didn’t write Devilfish with middle schoolers in mind, but she told the students that they were the cast and crew’s favorite crowd by far.
“Thank you guys so much not only for coming but for being an awesome audience. When you react to things, and your energy, really affects how the actors are in the play,” Starbard said.
And Starbard realized it makes sense. The play is about a young woman coming of age. She fights with her mother. She has a decidedly complicated love life, which came up a lot during the question-and-answer session in the Floyd Dryden cafeteria.
“Does she like him or him?” asked one student, pointing from Tripp to two of her co-stars.
“I love both of them, OK? That’s what it is, it’s a love triangle!” Tripp replied, drawing a large “ooh” from the students.
But Aanteinatu is also dealing with immense grief. As the play opens, she has just lost her entire village to the mysterious and possibly monstrous devilfish.
Starbard, who is Tlingit and Dena’ina, drew inspiration from stories she heard growing up from her parents and elders. Starbard’s story, of Aanteinatu, first took form as a book she wrote more than 10 years ago. Later, she adapted it into the play, which had its world premiere this fall at Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre.
Juneau eighth graders got to see the show and meet some of its stars and creators through a program called Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child that connects students to artists in the community.
Stephen Blanchett, art education director at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, helps coordinate the program.
“I have seen firsthand the impact that it makes in the community,” Blanchett said. “Creating new dancers, creating new singers, creating mask makers, creating drummers, I mean, those type of things, when you when you see that happen in a place, it’s huge.”
The hope is that students will be inspired by the art they see and maybe create some themselves. But Starbard said the inspiration goes both ways.
“The way they reacted just made me so excited,” she said. “This has me really thinking I need to do a show just for kids.”
Starbard will write three more plays for Perseverance Theatre over the next three years. One of them, she said, just might be a children’s play.