Play screening and workshop bring native storytelling to life at UAA for a weekend

Alaska-native playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse joined the UAA Theatre department for a storytelling workshop and Q&A session after a screening of his recent play.

Photo courtesy of AP.

Katasse’s play, “Where the Summit Meets the Stars,” was screened for three days —Nov. 4, 5, and 6 — at the UAA Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. 

Katasse was invited to Anchorage by Perseverance Theater for a collaboration with UAA Native Services and the theater department. Founded in 1979, Perseverance theater is the largest professional theater company in Alaska, with a mission to produce stories for Alaskans and a history of presenting native stories and featuring native voices. 

Currently in its 44th season, Perseverance showcases live performances in both Juneau and Anchorage. “The Summit Meets the Stars” held shows in Juneau throughout the month of October and three screenings in Anchorage at UAA. 

The play was written in 2017 while Kaatase was staying in San Diego, according to the playbill’s directors’ note. The play was set for production with Perseverance following a reading in December of 2019, Kaatase wrote, however production’s delay was due to the onset of COVID-19.

The show made it to the stage on Oct. 7 this year and follows the story of a young Tlingit woman —played by actress Erin Trip — who is rescued from a plane crash outside of Juneau. 

Katasse is half Italian and half Southeast Alaska-native of the Tsaagweidí Tlingit clan from Jeanuu. According to the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, there are close to 17,000 Tlingit people residing in Alaska, most spread through islands in the Southeast.

Katasse studied at the University of Hawaii: Mānoa and started his theater career with acting before writing and directing.

He shared some performance skills and methods in an intimate workshop held in the Harper Studio in the Fine Arts Building on the 5th. The two-hour workshop was free and open to all community members of any age. 

His teaching methods were universal and applicable to any form of storytelling, be it playwriting, music, public-speaking, or otherwise. He told attendees that all one needs is a story. 

Katasse worked with sound designer Ed Littlefield, a Tlingit percussionist from Alaska, to create the soundscape for the play. After the screening, Katasse said the musicians lead the whole play and that he and Ed had perfected communicating with each other without words during rehearsals. 

The lead drumming pattern in the play was just one Katasse had also included an original raven story in the play, and talks of the absence of traditional protagonists and antagonists in native stories he has read, along with unconventional narrative structures. 

“I’m tired of going through the Eurocentric hero’s journey,” he said. 

Katasse mentions there are five pillars of storytelling; oratory, song, dance, regalia, and the art of storytelling itself. “All five of those things can tell a story by themselves but together they create something that feels so genuine and so unique,” he said, “it should feel comforting like soup.”

“It takes a long time to get comfortable calling yourself an artist,” he said. Katasse reminds people of the phrase “i gu.aa yáx̱ xʼwán,” which translates to “have strength and courage.”

“Where the Summit Meets the Stars” will have a video on demand available on Perseverance's website through the 20th of November. In the Director’s Note contained within the playbill, Kataase wrote, “I have never directed a play on the mainstage of Perseverance Theater in the 14 years I’ve been here, so this is a special moment for me.”

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