Alaskan theatre group stages King Lear in Gwich’in

An Alaskan theatre group had a signature accomplishment in 2013: a new production of Shakespeare’s King Lear inspired by Gwich’in language and culture.

'He's like an elder, really... It just seemed like a nice fit:' lead actor

Allan Hayton reads lines for his performance as King Lear. The Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre production of the play was called Lear Khekwaii, and was inspired by Gwich'in language and culture. (Courtesy Allan Hayton)

An Alaskan actor has at least one monumental achievement to be proud of in 2013.

'That was one of the most nervous I'd been on stage,' says actor Allan Hayton, who spoke Gwich'in on stage when he played Shakespeare's King Lear. (Courtesy Allan Hayton)
Allan Hayton is a Gwich'in language teacher and theatre artist based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Last year, he worked on a unique production of  Shakespeare’s King Lear inspired by Gwich'in language and culture.

He also played the lead role.

“That was one of the most nervous I'd been on stage,” Hayton said. “I was performing in front of our elders, you know, the ones we have left, the ones that taught me the language. I wanted to hopefully make a good impression and they were happy. They really enjoyed it.”

Allan Hayton stars as King Lear in the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre production of King Lear called Lear Khekwaii, which was inspired by Gwich'in language and culture. (Courtesy Allan Hayton)
The Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre production included several characters who spoke in English and Gwich’in, an Athapaskan language that is spoken in northeastern Alaska, across North Yukon and into the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories.

​Hayton says everyone could follow the story and Gwich'in audiences appreciated it.

"Someone in the audience in Fairbanks, they said ‘Oh! That's the first time I've seen Shakespeare, and it was in my language!’"

King Lear tells the story of the king’s descent into madness after dividing his kingdom between two of his three daughters.

Gwich'in is an Athapaskan language spoken in northeastern Alaska, across the north Yukon and into the Northwest Territories' Mackenzie Delta.
The Gwich’in version, Lear Khehkwaii, is set in late 1800s Alaska, a time of major contact between First Nations and settlers. It’s also the time when missionary Robert McDonald was translating the Bible into Gwich'in.

“When we sat down and talked about it, it just seemed like ‘Yeah, that'll work actually,’” Hayton said. “Because when you think about Lear, he's a patriarch. He's like an elder, really, and he's thinking about the future and what he's going to pass on to his next generation. It just seemed like a nice fit."

The group toured the play to several Alaskan communities, including Hayton’s childhood home of Arctic Village, in the spring of 2013.

They hope to remount and tour the play in Canada and to the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.

The production was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts's Shakespeare for a New Generation program.

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