Sitting in the Citicorp gallery next to Manhattan’s St. Peter’s Church, where she is directing five operas for the multicultural Magic Circle Opera Repertory Company, Alaskan-born theatre artist Jane Lind wears shoulder-length earrings made by a cousin from red bugle beads signifying life, surrounded by black beads for protection. “My people always make sure that you have something from home,” she comments. “These earrings are to give me strength.
“Lind’s heritage is a guiding force behind her work as an actress, director, choreographer and teacher. “I grew up in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, in a culture that always had theatre, though I didn’t know it was theatre then. I think I saw my first bright lights in the rocks and ash spilling up from Mount Veniaminof, the volcano near my village of Perryville. It was so dramatic – we had volcanos, windstorms, the sea.
I’m not certain that something wasn’t stirred in me very early. Also being raised as a Russian Orthodox was important, because that has such pageantry. I sang in Russian in the church choir. I have a sixteenth to a fourth of Russian in me, and my grandmother always said, ‘You identify with everything in you. ‘ The Aleut culture and the Russian culture were very much part of my life.
“Lind began her professional career while a high school student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where her performance as Jo in A Taste of Honey led to the role of Rosa in Gene Frankel’s production of The Rose Tattoo at SMU’S Greer Garson Theatre. She launched her New York career in the early 70s when she helped found the Native American Theatre Ensemble. Her cultural identity also informed her performance as Hecuba in Andrei Serban’s Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, a seminal production that opened at La Mama and toured internationally in the mid-’70s. Lind recalls that “during rehearsals we had a person teaching us Ancient Greek, but we also used Latin and a mixture of languages. There was some Aleut in it, too, I contributed that.
“While playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the Alaska Repertory Company in 1982, Lind had the chance to explore her growing interest in directing that dated back to her high school staging of a Native American version of Oedipus Rex. She and Dana Hart, the actor playing Petruchio, were asked to go into the schools and teach drama as a way to help children improve their educational skills and self-esteem. Eventually, they did theatre residencies in eight rural communities around the state. Through this project, Lind encountered students with tremendous personal problems; many had tried to commit suicide. “A lot of the teachers, however good and caring they might be, were white, whereas I was a native person that students could identify with. In a matter of weeks, I had them doing everything.
The role model was very important for them and began to cut barriers like crazy. Once I understood whom I was working with, I felt that I had to give them more time, that I must start giving something back. “So Lind began working with Native Americans in Alaska to record their legends. After founding the Spirit Theatre in Bethel with Renee Patten, Lind researched Inuit legends and commissioned Dave Hunsacker to write a play based on the creation myth.
The Spirits in Ad Things toured villages in southwestern Alaska and the Arctic slope, and in Fairbanks and Anchorage. She then worked with the Athabascan people, co-writing with Patten and directing The Potlatch, based on traditional legends. “Potlatch is a tourist piece,” she explains, “a half-hour play that shows the heart, the strength and the beauty of the people. Many villages want to work so that what they present to tourists will be dignified. “The way the work is done varies. Sometimes students from universities and colleges go out and tape the people speaking; sometimes I go with them, but the compiling falls to me.
It is difficult to get the trust of the peoples and their elders because they have been ripped off so often by theatre or dance people who have studied their cultures and done interpretations that haven’t passed through the elders and have been of no benefit to the peoples. In my projects, the final step is getting the sanction of the elders, so the respect is there. “The hardest battle I have to fight is that, while I am a Native American, I am a woman. They do not expect a woman to do what I do; a woman is still supposed to be home with the babies. They find that I’m very disciplined and have done my research and have the highest respect, but still sometimes they say, Why should we trust you?’ I say, Why should you not? Don’t let your stories die because I’m trying to do them.
You will be guilty of taking your heritage to the grave instead of sharing it with the next generation. ‘”They sometimes get very upset about how I’m doing it, because I cut one part off to make the story line flow, but I’m trying to go for the heart. I bring in the traditional dances, for instance, but I’ll say, I cannot let you sing for ten minutes. I want only three minutes, for the essence. ‘ Your own people begin to doubt you in that process of getting to what is really theirs.
After they see it, they understand. “In rehearsals for The Glenn and Allen Show, a play about the rural Alaskan towns of Glenn and Allen which features Athabascan and white residents, Lind was faced with resistance from native performers who resented being moved around the stage in groups. She asked the most outspoken Athabascan to sit in the auditorium and watch: “I explained why I was moving them around – how it showed them always present but their lands shrinking – and he said, ‘Oh man, Jane, I didn’t know this was happening. The picture’s quite different from being up there. ‘ “Lind, who played Chuck Conners’s Inupiaq Eskimo wife for director Percy Adlon in Salmonberries, which won first place in a 1991 Canadian film festival, is constantly switching hats: “For the past five years I’ve been directing operas for Magic Circle, which wants me to commit more of my time.
In Alaska they want me to do a professorship for a year, as well as to help many villages that want to improve tourism. ” Next month Lind goes into rehearsal as leading lady and choreographer for Robert Jonanson’s production of Black Elk Speaks, a new version of Christopher Sergel’s play about a Sioux holy man, originally presented at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D. C. The play opens at the New Mexico Repertory theatre in Santa Fe, and is expected to come to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey early next year. Between acting engagements, Lind will continue to work in Alaska: “Beginning my career in the Native American Theatre Ensemble gave me the certainty that I could make a living acting, and also made me very proud of who I was.
Eventually it also gave me the desire to go back to my people and say, Hey, we have legends that are worth remembering and recording – let’s look at them. It’s grand to set up businesses for Native Americans, but what about the soul?’ To me, that’s what theatre is.”