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In Alaska, the Play's the Thing

For 10 years, the Last Frontier Theatre Conference has lured stars from the Great White Way to the Great White North.


VALDEZ, Alaska — Most tourists come to Valdez for the outdoors. But each June the town is overrun by hundreds of people who spend their time inside. They don't bring fishing rods or flotation vests, and they all but ignore the beauty of the snow-flecked Chugach Mountains, the grandeur of Prince William Sound and the chance to walk up to a glacier.

They're theater people, and they come north to hobnob with some of the country's greatest living playwrights at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. More than 500 people attended the 10th annual event, which took place June 13 through 22.

Valdez is more commonly associated with an ecological disaster than with the performing arts. The rest of the year, the town doesn't even have a community theater. Once a year, though, it's Broadway North.

"You've got the top playwrights in the world here. In New York, you'd never see all these people together in the same room," said Woodie King Jr., who founded the New Federal Theatre in New York and has directed both on and off-Broadway.

Since 1993, conference founder JoAnn McDowell has coaxed north renowned actors and playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Horton Foote, Patricia Neal, Robert Anderson, Jean Stapleton and Terrance McNally.

This year, the playbill included John Guare ("House of Blue Leaves," "Six Degrees of Separation") and two-time Pulitzer-winner August Wilson ("Fences," "The Piano Lesson").

Lloyd Richards, who directed the first production of "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway and who ran the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Festival for years, was back for a second year in a row. He shared billing with writer-director Jack Gelber ("The Connection," "Dylan's Line") and Obie-winning actor-director Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theatre.

But the grand marshal of this theater parade was Edward Albee, winner of three Pulitzers and numerous other awards, including a Tony for his current (and controversial) Broadway hit, "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"

Albee is the reason the conference exists in the first place. In 1992, at a meeting of theater enthusiasts in Anchorage, McDowell mentioned that she knew the playwright and offered to invite him to Alaska.

"I could see their eyes rolling," McDowell said. "So I called Edward and said, 'You have to come--they think I'm name-dropping!" Albee showed up in summer 1993 and has been to Valdez four times since. The emphasis on new playwrights makes it different than other theater festivals, he said.

"This is much more ambitious," he said.

Opening the Door

McDowell said Albee is the reason the conference succeeded. Because of his involvement, other artists were willing to take a chance, and theater fans were willing to travel so far north. After all, Valdez isn't the easiest place to reach. You fly into Anchorage and then either drive for six hours or take a 35-minute white-knuckle flight on a prop jet into the tiny Valdez airport.

"It's hard to get an Internet connection. My cell phone doesn't work. But the isolation is part of the reason this thing [succeeds]," said San Francisco resident Victoria Morse. With no distractions, she was free to immerse herself in theater, and "my sense of myself as a writer increased a hundredfold," Morse said.

Days began early, with staged readings of 14 full-length and 94 10-minute play scripts, along with master classes and lectures. Evening retrospectives of the visiting artists' work were followed by receptions that invariably ran late. Some nights, non-sanctioned "fringe" readings of plays and poetry continued into the wee hours.

Heavy eyes were the norm, and conference coffee was as vital as oxygen. People talked proudly of how few hours they'd slept, marveling that the body clock-skewing Alaskan summer kept them going past exhaustion. Although the sun did set, close to midnight, a kind of twilight lingered until it was time for the day to begin again.

Playwrights came from two dozen states and Canada, most of them to hear just 10 minutes' worth of their work read. For some, that will be as close as they ever get to production. Others have found success here. Aoise Stratford of Berkeley has had two one-act plays in New York festivals since her first trip to Valdez three years ago. Another one-act is about to open off-off-Broadway.

"It's amazing what happens [because of Valdez]. Doors open," Stratford said.

The town, in turn, is pleased to open its doors. Mayor Bert Cottle said the event is "an economic boon" that packs the town's five small hotels and 50 B&Bs but noted that it's also a "cultural opportunity most people will never have in a lifetime."

That's Shoe Business

Visiting artists get treated to Alaska hospitality: hikes, boat rides, dinners in private homes. But even famous visitors have to take their shoes off at the door, an Alaska custom that is a great social leveler. Valdez loosens up everyone, except possibly Edward Albee, whose reserved manner is legendary.

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