Inspirations and Thoughts from Wilma staff, artists, and collaborators: Johnny Van Heest on the Arctic


It’s a brisk day today and we had a taste of snow last week, so I was inspired to write this blog entry.

I hold an irritating fascination with the Arctic and the cold North. Allow me to qualify…It’s really more ‘irritating’ to others because even though I’m an American Mid-Atlantic-er, I don’t often join in the choir of despair when our golden, temperate autumns turn into snaps of cold with punctuated variations of snow, rain, and sleet – only to be followed by two months of a season I call ‘Grey,’ just before an eruption of allergy season. When the inevitable complaints about the winter weather start to surface, I tend to gleefully rebuff with “Imagine if it was like this every day!” See? Irritating.

But whatever. I like the cold and snow*. I’m that guy.

As for the Arctic, I see it as total isolation. It’s blank. It’s endless. It’s pristine. It’s a canvas of white accented by brilliant torrents of ephemeral light in the sky and small remote communities of brightly painted buildings on the ground. It’s a delicate ecosystem populated by the world’s most extraordinary species; proof that even in the most unforgiving environment, life finds a way. It’s resilience.

As I have become more familiar with Dan O’Brien’s play The Body of an American, now in rehearsals here at the Wilma, I have reveled in the fact that a significant portion of the play is set in the Arctic Circle. In the play, Dan O’Brien chronicles his friendship with award-winning photojournalist Paul Watson; a friendship that began exclusively through e-mails, eventually leading them to their first in-person meeting in Ulukhaktok, Canada. With unbelievable precision, Dan expresses his Arctic environment...the Inuit accents, the bark of the sled dogs, the snow and ice. The dialogue of the play is accompanied by photographs projected onto the set, including Dan’s own photo of the Amundsen Gulf…a tundra…a beautiful Arctic nothingness. I couldn’t think of a better setting to frame the first meeting of two people…especially these two remarkable individuals. (You’ll have to see the play to understand what I mean)

Playwright Dan O’Brien was at the Wilma for the first rehearsal and sat through the first read-through of the script. Even though he’s quite a genial fellow, I figured I would give him a little more time here in Philadelphia before I pester him unrelentingly about his Arctic experiences.

In the meantime, I am able to take office chair tours of this frozen world thanks to Google Earth, YouTube, and Netflix. Here are some interesting videos that I encourage you to watch:

A cute video about Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada.

Joanna Lumley (Yes, Patsy from Ab Fab) Land of the Northern Lights

People of a Feather
Featuring groundbreaking footage from seven winters in the Arctic, People of a Feather takes you through time into the world of Inuit on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay connecting past present and future.

Wild Arctic
This four-part series travels to the Taiga and shows the forests sheltering animals that specialize in dealing with the ice and cold.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
This documentary explores life along the River Yenisei in Russia, where the industrious inhabitants of a rural village truly live off the land.

On Hulu
To the Arctic
Narrated by Meryl Streep
An extraordinary journey to the top of the world, To the Arctic 3D is the ultimate tale of survival. Narrated by Oscar® winner Meryl Streep, the film takes audiences on a never-before-experienced journey into the lives of a mother polar bear and her two seven-month-old cubs as they navigate the changing Arctic wilderness they call home. Captivating, adventurous, and intimate footage brings moviegoers up close and personal with this family's struggle to survive in a frigid environment of melting ice, immense glaciers, spectacular waterfalls, and majestic snowbound peaks

I suppose it should be noted that while my imagination is limitless with an idealized vision of the cold north, I know that high crime rates, drug and alcohol abuse, and crippling food prices devastate communities within the Arctic Circle, particularly First Nation populations in Canada. On top of these human challenges, these communities are facing a number of profound environmental fluctuations – call it what you want, I refuse to debate the subject. I keep my eyes to the north and with authentic interest, I follow a lot of the news of what is happening in the Arctic, both good and bad. For all its grandeur and brilliance, there is still darkness (figuratively and literally) to the north.

I’m venturing further and further north as time/money/life circumstances permit. One day, like Dan O’Brien, I hope to have the chance to stand on top of the world. If anyone is interested, we can stay in these glass-roofed igloos and watch the Northern Lights dance above.

Keep Warm,
Johnny Van Heest
Wilma's Digital Communications Manager

Also, here’s a puppy Arctic Fox wet from the snow.

(click the little fella to see some extraordinary photos of Arctic Foxes)

*Check back in March when I’m totally sick of this weather and I wax poetic about my love for palm trees, sand, and the hot sun.


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