Local storyteller returns to the festival fringe

Ketchikan storyteller Jack Finnegan stands for a portrait. Finnegan participated in this year's Festival Fringe event in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Jeanette Sweetman

Ketchikan storyteller Jack Finnegan, in August returned to his roots as a world-traveling teller of tales when he performed at the Festival Fringe event in Edinburgh, Scotland.

According to information at edfringe.com, the Fringe Festival started in 1947, when eight theater groups arrived, uninvited, to the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival and performed at the fringes of that event.

Each year, more performers of all types joined the Fringe event until, in 1958, the Festival Fringe Society was formed to support any artist who wanted to secure their own venue and perform.

“This is the world’s largest performing arts festival,” Finnegan said at a recent interview in a local cafe. “It’s every August, it’s three weeks long, it’s been going for 70-odd years now. There are literally thousands of shows produced every year, there are hundreds of venues.”

Finnegan’s participation in the festival this year was his second dive into the event. This year, he performed his feature-length story titled, “The American’s Dream.” He also enlisted the help of local photographer Jeannette Sweetman and artist Matt Hamilton to create publicity material.

“I’d had an incredible experience there in 2010 and I’ve wanted to go back for a good long while, and there was a piece I’ve been working on — a spoken word performance piece,” he said that he’d wanted to share there.

“The Fringe Festival will have stand-up comedy, theater, musical theater, spoken word, extemporaneous storytelling, mime, jugglers, musicians — I mean, it runs the gamut. It’s a huge festival,” he added.

He said he’d shared a shorter version of that spoken word performance piece as a participant in the 2016 First City Player’s Divas & Divos event.

“In that piece, three years ago, it was a six-minute long comparative analysis, lyrical in presentation, in which I examined and explored the unexpected parallels between Ketchikan and New York City, which is where I lived prior to coming here,” Finnegan said.

That six-minute performance was well-received by the Ketchikan audience, he said, and he was motivated to expand it into a feature-length piece for the Fringe Festival.

“This was about a 45- to 50-minute length piece, still with a focus on the parallels between Ketchikan and New York,” he explained.

When he expanded that story for an international audience, Finnegan said there were challenges he had to wrangle.

“In Ketchikan, you can talk about this place very differently than you can in a place where people probably have never been here, or maybe have not even heard of it,” he said. “As a writer, your angle becomes a little more outside in, rather than inside out, for that different audience.

“I still wanted to examine, sort of the threads between these two places I’ve called home for the entirety of my adult life.”

Finnegan lived in New York City for 17 years prior to arriving in Ketchikan in 2013 to work as a zodiac guide in Tab and Sarah McNabb’s tour business. He and Tab McNabb had worked for years together at a summer camp near Nashville, Tennessee in the 1990s. That sea time allowed him to earn his captain’s license, leading him to his more recent job as a fishing guide with Baranof Fishing Excursions.

During the four years preceding his move to Ketchikan, Finnegan twice toured the U.S. and then internationally performing his stories. He traveled twice around the U.S. by rail and also performed in Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Morocco, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, India, China, Japan, Australia and Canada.

During his first U.S. tour, Finnegan said he performed a story about New York City in about two dozen cities. Those travels then became the basis for a portrait-of-America story he wrote and performed in New York City, as well as a fresh story about that metropolis he performed off-Broadway before launching his global tour.

“Those travels became the basis for a series for my second American tour, so I traveled the states again by rail performing stories about the global neighborhood” in 2012, he said.

In 2013, he presented that work in performances off-Broadway, just before arriving in Ketchikan. He now is working on a book detailing his adventures during those years, he said.

Of his August Fringe Festival performances of “The American’s Dream,” in which he examined the threads connecting his two hometowns, New York City and Ketchikan, Finnegan said, “I don’t want that to be expository, I don’t want that to be dull, I don’t want it to be a litany of descriptors that are intended to give sort of an analytical view of what Ketchikan looks like. I want to make it more visceral, more — the subject of my work is almost always, in some way, shape or form, humanity.”

He explained what he aimed to share about Ketchikan in his story, asserting that what he values about the town is more than just the  natural beauty and bountiful resources.

“It’s not what I find most compelling and fascinating about this place,” he said. “It’s the relationships that people have here, it’s the relationships that people have with the town itself, it’s the layers of history that, because we’re in this sort of compact, remote environment, are more palpable and evident and personal than the layers of history in a town like New York City, which is so sprawling and vast and massive, that you might be aware of the history of your block, of your neighborhood or your borough, of the city at large, of this particular populace, but because it’s so plugged with people, it’s harder to relate to that on a personal level.”

He said the majority of attendees at his performances at the Fringe festival were “Brits or Scots, a few Americans, a couple of Asians and folks from India.”

In his story, Finnegan said, “I described my work as a charter captain. I had to give some framing for this town, so the cruise tourism obviously is a big part of our economy, it’s a big part of our culture, it’s a big part of our social fabric here — it’s ultimately what brought me here in the first place.”

A point of entry for his audience members was largely “me describing working with clients,” he said. “Taking people fishing.”

His clients hailed from around the globe, and he spoke of the vast array of questions they would ask.

“Most notably, and most centrally to my story was the question of, ‘Where are you from?’” he said. “‘Are you from here?’ And, this notion, this premium that people seem to place on the idea that any people they meet in Alaska are from Alaska”

He said that notion raised a larger question for him.

“Having to sort of fend off that question from clients all the time, especially as a charter captain, where there’s this expectation that ‘You’re this Alaskan, you’re going to produce these Alaskan fish in these Alaskan waters for me,’” he said was an issue that fueled his story as well.

“What are the underlying questions behind that inquiry in the first place?” Finnegan said he pondered. “What are we asking ourselves and each other when we talk about where we’re from, about our values, our perspective, our frame on the world?”

He said his inspiration was the idea that “your life is not so much where you come from, but how you live.”

He said that he enjoyed conversing with attendees at his Edinburgh performances after the  show, and even met a few people who had visited Ketchikan.

Finnegan shared his motivations behind working so hard to create and share his stories.

“I find no shortage of things to be inspired by or excited about and sure, there’s plenty in the world to be discouraged by and frustrated with, and maybe even angry about, but that’s not the world from which I draw my art,” he said.

“I’m keen to put my shoulder to the wheel of our best intentions and what keeps me going is a desire to not only express what I think is the most interesting and compelling about our lives and the human species and the world in which we live, that we share, but to remind other people that there’s plenty to celebrate. There’s just so much to thrive upon, and I don’t want all of what is discouraging about the world to drown out what is right and just and beautiful about the world.”

His advice for fellow artists was, “In terms of creating work, it’s simply a matter of sticking to the task and not expecting perfection from yourself.”

A major challenge for artists to tackle, he said, was, “You have this drive, this desire. You know how this piece you might create could appear or feel in its completion, but getting to completion is such an arduous process and you have to give yourself permission to fail, to fall down, to misstep, to make wrong, to dabble, to experiment, to create, to take time to get input.”

“If you’re ever disappointed because you don’t produce perfection out of the gate,” he added, “you’re doing yourself an enormous disservice. Just trust yourself and keep at it.”