Romeo and Juliet cast, Fairbanks, Alaska 2023

by Hank Nuwer

My six-month anniversary starting work at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska occurs today. My cheechako moments still happen, and sourdough status still is far away.

Like last Sunday when I went on a hike by myself near Angel Creek off Chena Hot Springs Road.

“That’s bear country,” someone told me the next day. “Of course you carried a weapon or bear spray?”

“Not exactly,” I said. I carried a bottle of water and can of mosquito repellant.

But I did spot four moose that day.

Cheechako senior moments

Lunch prices at cafes in Fairbanks are stiff, so my wife sends me to work with a microwavable container filled with goodies like leftover pasta from the previous supper. A few days ago, I took out a bag, tossed the container into the microwave, and about fainted when I opened it. The container had some kind of mushy Greek eggplant dish, not pasta, which meant I’d swiped someone else’s lunch. Feeling guilty as all get-out, I replaced the lid in its bag and put it back in the fridge.

To avoid sounding like a cheechako, I concentrate hard never to mispronounce “Nenana” and “Tanana” in conversation. Those mispronunciations were acquired during my many decades of visiting Fairbanks, Tok and Nenana as a tourist, and they are hard for me to shake as a new resident.

One of my shuddering memories of mispronouncing a name goes back to the second grade in parochial school. My parents taught me to read early, and so, Sister Mary Restituta called on me often to read from a torn, soiled and out-of-date geography book.

I loved reading whether alone or aloud. My mother once ordered me to drop my copy of Charles Dickens and get my butt outside to get some sun “for once.”

As I read in class, Sister’s piercing voice derailed my reading and woke up half-asleep pupils. “Sweet Lord,” she said in her native Polish. “Did you hear him, class?”

I squeaked like a mouse. “What’s wrong?”

“You said ‘Are Kansas,’” she thundered before taking me out of the game for a pinch reader. “It’s Arkan-SAW, Arkan-SAW, Arkan-SAW.”

Brushing up on my Shakespeare

These days I’ve had to correct mispronunciations more than once as I play Prince Escalus in the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which opens Thursday and continues for three weeks at Jack Townshend Point at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Sirrah, what made your master come to this place?” I said at one rehearsal. I pronounced it like I’d say “syrup.”

“No, it’s ‘seerah, seerah, seerah,” barked the play’s prompter.

I also learned very important theater tips from our prompter. Such as, when you are backstage and use the portable toilet, you must ever so gently close the door. If you slam the door, the noise startles the audience, and your fellow actors will ask if you were born stupid or took lessons.

Now when I gotta go, I ask myself if I can’t just hold my water till the show is over, especially because I must wiggle out of my zipperless baggy costume bottoms to do the job. “To pee or not to pee,” I ask myself in true Shakespearian fashion. “That is the question.”

I also have learned to raise my voice about 19 notches whenever a jet plane flies overhead during a performance. Clad in my Elizabethan finery, I must resist the urge to shake my fist at the jet and yell, “What is this demonry?”

The play has been another joy for me in Fairbanks, especially because my wife Gosia is in “Romeo and Juliet,” too, as a dancer. This is her first time ever in a play, and I’m sure by the time it closes she’ll get over her nervousness.

On stage for the first time

Once upon a time, I dreamed of being an actor. I even spent the entire summer of 1969 as a Shakespeare Institute Fellow affiliated with the American Shakespeare Theatre, a wonderful institution that folded in the 1980s

My fellow students were Shakespeare professors, critics and graduate students from as far away as Japan and Mexico. Faculty included legendary lecturers and guest speakers such as actors Morris Carnovsky, Brian Bedford and Moses Gunn, as well as American Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn and English director John Dexter.

I was chosen for a fellowship for “The Renaissance and Today” on the basis of a one-act play I wrote called “Mac Lady Bird,” a satire on the politics of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird.

Let me digress for a moment. I actually “met” Mrs. Johnson when I was part of an honor court of Buffalo State fraternity and sorority members in Buffalo, New York, for a tree-planting ceremony. We stood on either side of a red carpet as the First Lady strode toward a waiting hole, shovel and 12-foot linden tree. I wore a flat blue pledge hat that now, thankfully, has been banned for wear as a hazing offense by Buff State.

The day possessed a nasty, gusty wind as only Buffalo could have coming off of Lake Erie. I was afraid Mrs. Ladybird’s headgear would blow away. She wore a red wool dress with an A-line skirt and a slightly oval neckline, set off by black medium-heeled pumps cut square across the toe. (Now, here’s a disclosure. I wouldn’t know a red wool dress with an A-line skirt from a red wheelbarrow. Of course, I lifted that fashion statement from a news story in the Buffalo News of Oct. 2, 1965).

“Outside the White House there is a linden of a different variety that Franklin D. Roosevelt planted,” the First Lady said as a reporter scribbled down her words. “Now when I look at it I’ll think of you.”

“You,” of course, being a couple hundred students, faculty, and muckety-mucks surrounding the pile of dirt, not me per se.

Anyway, back to the Shakespeare Institute.

I still recall the first line of my admittedly amateurish satire, which was given a reading with profs, graduate students and professional actors onstage reciting my lines.

“Oh, for a Muse of Fire, or any old Other Muse that doth transpire.”

I also acted onstage for the first time, playing Flute in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Young Hal in “Henry IV, Part 1.” I still can recite all my lines from memory, which is remarkable because these days I have to work many times harder to retain a monologue.

But I do have two painful memories from my stint at the Shakespeare Institute. A professional actor tried to teach me to fence but gave it up as hopeless. He said something like he’d seen more finesse in a buffalo on roller skates.

The second painful occurrence happened after a lecture by Princeton University English Professor Alan S.Downer, the author of “Shakespeare: Five Plays,” which we used as a text.

Too shy at age 21 to ask a question in class, I followed Professor Downer outside as he was sliding into the black limousine the Institute had reserved for him. He cocked his ear as I asked him a short question about my character Prince Hal.

“Sorry,” he said dismissively as if my question were the biggest dollop of claptrap he’d ever heard. “I only answer questions like that when I’m being paid to lecture.”

I watched his big black limo cart him back toward Princeton. I wonder if Professor Downer was any relation to Sister Mary Restituta?