The Winter Bear Project

I always start a play because I have a question. My goal is not to find an answer, but to simply explore the complexities of the question.

In 2007 I wrote a play about an Alaska Native teenager who was planning to commit suicide until Koyukon Athabascan elder Sidney Huntington (1915 – 2015) turned him around by teaching him how to hunt a winter bear with nothing but a spear.

From 2013 – 2016, I produced The Winter Bear along with related outreach, in 42 cities, towns and villages all over Alaska for the non-profit Winter Bear Project.

To date, over 10,000 Alaskans have seen the play, most with their neighbors in their own communities. During that time, we danced, sang and played theatre games with thousands of students. We sampled moose, caribou, bear, salmon, seal, whale and lots of Jell-O at community potlucks where scores of generous people shared stories of how they coped with the fear and hopelessness suicide leaves for survivors.

It must be a thrill to have a show open on Broadway, but for me nothing can match the thrill of hearing that collective intake of breath when an audience in a drafty school gym on the Bering Sea coast realizes they’re seeing a version of their own story on our makeshift stage.

There’s no reward quite as sweet as hearing an old Koyukon man in a wheelchair whisper in my ear, “You got it right.” { Or to have people moved to dance for us. (Thank you Minto, Utqiagvik, Mountain Village, Nulato.)

There’s no silence as profound as the silence of a whole gym full of incarcerated youth when they see Sidney Huntington’s own wolf parka placed on the shoulders of the teenager at the end of the play.

There’s no sound as satisfying as listening to a standing ovation for the young actor who’s had to wrestle with his own demons to play the part of the teenager.

In 2017, Perseverance Theatre, Alaska’s only non-profit professional theater, became the producer of The Winter Bear, carrying on our tradition of touring the show to the people who understand it best and need it the most: Alaskans in rural locations where the suicide rate for young Alaska Native males is four times the national average. I’m proud that Perseverance is using The Winter Bear to showcase the talents of many new and seasoned Alaska Native actors and theatre professionals.

I am grateful to Sidney Huntington and his family for allowing me to share both the good and the difficult parts of his life . “You can go for it,” Sidney said, “if you think it might help even one kid.”

Please go to our website (http://winterbearproject.com). The pictures will make you smile and the words will give you hope.