Location, Location, Location

By Vicki Sanders / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Peter DuBois found his bohemia in the Czech Republic in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then a young American theater director, he joined a group of Czechs, Danes, Australians, and Americans who squatted in a building in Prague and started a guerrilla theater company called Asylum. Three years later they had earned not only the respect of the cultural underground but also the official recognition of the Czech state.

But DuBois found more in Prague than every artist’s dream of a cheap, supportive environment in which to make his mark. He found community, cultural diversity, a chorus of theatrical voices. He found a template of his future in the theater.

One day, while watching a Czech colleague, Petr Lebel, direct The Seagull, DuBois had an epiphany: the production felt incredibly Czech. “It inspired me to go home to investigate my own identity as an American artist,” DuBois says.

His quest for a master’s program led to Brown, in part because Paula Vogel taught there. DuBois wanted to study American forms—popular entertainment, musical theater, jazz, vaudeville—and “Paula’s is a distinctly American voice,” he says.

Now thirty-three, DuBois is artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska—the ironies of which delight him. “Alaska embodies a lot of American myths,” he says. “It’s a huge cultural center for Native Americans. At the same time it’s one of the least American states in the country in that it’s so removed from the rest of the nation. Alaska has always been a place to discover something new, but it’s also one of the most ancient cultures in our nation. So it’s a really intriguing balance between what’s old, what’s classic, and what’s new.... I’m constantly involved in the question of what it means to be an American and to make American theater.”

After graduate school, DuBois worked as a freelance director (he staged The Song of Seven Cities by Dennis Davis ’97 M.F.A. in New York City, and The Whole Wide World by Alva Rogers ’98 M.F.A. at Trinity Repertory) before taking the mantle of the twenty-year-old Perseverance Theatre from its visionary founder, Molly Smith. Perhaps best known for developing Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, Smith had developed forty-five new plays for Perseverance before she departed Alaska to take over Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

The ebullient DuBois, whom American Theatre magazine had earlier named one of fifteen theater artists under thirty who “will be transforming the American stage for decades to come,” was ready to start transforming. He spent his first year learning about Alaska—a tall order in a land where fifty-two indigenous languages are spoken. Then he articulated a vision and set his goals. One of those, says DuBois, “is to catch the next generation of artists”—building on Perseverance’s reputation as a place where serious American theater makers want to work. Another is to develop Alaskan artists and audiences: “I want a theater that feels like Alaska.” A third is to use the state as the lens through which he views new and classical work.

Over the past five years, Perseverance has staged a world premiere of Moby Dick that involved the Inupiat Eskimos of Alaska’s North Slope. For the West Coast premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood, the story of a New York homeless woman and her five children, DuBois went under a bridge in New York and listened to the sounds; then he did the same thing in Alaska. “We found a way, a form that reveals what is Alaskan about the play, even if the content is not,” he says. Similarly, he approached Bridget Carpenter, whom he’d known through Brown and Trinity, about writing a play for Perseverance. He asked what stories were floating around in her head. When she mentioned one about a man who made a lawn chair fly, DuBois leapt. “I said, ‘That’s the play.’ The notion of an iconoclastic dreamer obsessed is a very Alaskan story. Even though she’s from L.A. and writing about a southern California guy, the play feels Alaskan.” UP: The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair premiered in Juneau and will tour the state next season.

DuBois still freelances occasionally. His 2002 production of Alva Rogers’s The Doll Play at the Actor’s Express in Atlanta earned him his second Rockefeller MAP grant, and his Much Ado About Nothing is being presented by the California Shakespeare Theater, in Berkeley, this fall. But he’s content to remain in Alaska for a while. “I’m not interested in living just anywhere,” he says. “I want to continue making theater in cities that inspire me, like Prague did, and in communities that inspire me, like Alaska does.”

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September / October 2003