The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

'Winter Bear' powerful message lifts taboo on suicide


Winter Bear Project

The 2014 Winter Bear cast and crew posted this website greeting from Barrow, where it is performing the play prior to coming to Seward on April 23.

With our community touched by four suicides in the past four months, Seward Prevention Coalition has invited a group that travels to rural areas across Alaska to present "The Winter Bear." It's a play on the topic of suicide that has generated much thought and conversation. The North Star Community Foundation's Winter Bear Project has taken it to many Alaska communities with high suicide rates over the past four years.

Its message: if we all work together, we can change the climate of fear and hopelessness that breeds suicide.

Along with the presentations, schools, local tribes, service organizations and troupe members work together to contribute a variety of options to help each area respond to the underlying causes of suicide. The troupe mingles with families at local potlucks, there are suicide prevention workshops, dances, drum circles, yoga and more, depending upon local interest and the talents of particular troupe members.

In Seward, the play will be performed for students at Seward High School and Seward Middle School on the afternoon of April 23, with time set aside for an informal discussion or counselling. There will be an all-community potluck at 5:30 p.m. at the high school that evening, followed by another free performance at 7 p.m. at Seward High Auditorium. After the play, there may be questions or discussion for those who wish to participate.

"Suicide is a subject that no one likes to talk about. But why wait until we've lost someone dear in our lives to bring awareness and educate others on this important topic?" said Deb Bond who has been a tireless advocate of suicide prevention since losing her son Jeff. Jeffrey was a sophomore at Seward High School when he took his life in 1996. "We have a tendency as a society to look at that and go, 'hmmm, that's so sad. That's their problem, not mine.' But whose problem is it?"

The death of two teens earlier this year spurred local discussion on the need for increased community-wide suicide prevention efforts including better teacher and community prevention education, and establishing a youth mentoring program. This play is another of those efforts, said Bond, who invited the troupe to bring the play to Seward.

Winter Bear tells the story of Athabascan teenager named Duane who is contemplating suicide after being sentenced to cut wood for Athabascan elder Sidney Huntington. At first the two can't communicate, but they gradually find a shared language based on the old man's hunting experience and the young man's video game vocabulary. Together they create a spear in the traditional way that will become useful in fighting off an attack by a hungry winter bear. David overcomes his despondency to discover his courage and a greater sense of purpose.

"This play's unusual in that it's set in an Alaska Native setting and has young Native guy as a hero," said principal actor Brian Wescott, of Fairbanks, who is entering his fifth run playing the elder, Sydney Huntington, a man in his 90s who has mentored many younger people.

"A lot of people who come to see this play, frankly, probably have never seen a play before, let alone one that has their people in it," Wescott said. "It's a universal underdog story. Somebody thrown into the deep end and not knowing what to do. The young hero figures it out, and finds he has more strength than he thought he did. That's a universal story that anyone can get behind. It doesn't matter if you're Native, non-Native, rich or poor. And I think it's also a uniquely Alaskan story in that we have to be self-reliant but we also have to rely on each other."

The recent death of Wescott's own father, and a traumatic near-death experience brought play's importance home to him. As play rehearsals were about to start, Wescott's health suddenly failed, and he found himself being raced to the hospital ER in an ambulance, he said. So great was his pain, that all he could think of was throwing himself out of the ambulance to end it all. In the ER, he had an allergic reaction to his medications and stopped breathing. Fighting the feeling of sinking under, he threw every ounce of energy he had into trying to survive, realizing now everything he still needed to do, including performing the play. The actor would have died were it not for playwright Anne Hanley who was there with him, witnessed his distress, and raced off to get help, he said. It's like what needs to happen when someone is feeling so depressed that they can't imagine a way out, but need a helping hand.

In writing the play, Hanley worked hard to keep it hopeful and positive, and to be sure that it generates many laughs as well. After Fairbanks, Barrow and Seward, the play will be performed in Ninilchik, Nanwalek, Kasilof and Port Graham. Last year about a thousand Alaskans saw the play, with an estimated total audience size of 3,000 since its first season opened at Cyrano's in Anchorage in 2010.

"The great success of the play isn't as important as going into the communities with the right intentions," Hanley said. "Hopefully it can be kind of a catalyst for others to see how their own story relates to it, and I think theater is very good at doing that."


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