Recasting the Last Frontier
As bigwigs bow out, participants note a more practical,
By MARK BAECHTEL
Anchorage Daily News
Published: June 26th, 2005
It might surprise many Alaskans to know that the Last Frontier
Theatre Conference has been around only since 1993. Despite its
relative youth, it has quickly become one of the marquee events
in Alaska's -- and perhaps American theater's -- summer season,
every year inducing some of the leading lights of the stage to
hie themselves to Prince William Sound for a week of hobnobbing
with one another and critiquing dramatic works by the next generation
of playwrights, Alaskans and Outsiders both.
Every year, that is, until this one.
Aye, there's the rub -- and a question too. In November, conference
founder and Prince William Sound Community College president Jo
Ann McDowell resigned her post amid a cloud of controversy, leaving
responsibility for the conference in the hands of conference coordinator
In the wake of McDowell's resignation, conference fixture Edward
Albee bitterly signaled his solidarity with her by boycotting
this year's event. As went Albee, so went most of the other American
theater luminaries who have made it such a high-profile event.
While the University of Alaska system declared its strong belief
that the show ought to go on, many wondered: Without McDowell
and the big guns from New York and elsewhere, come June, would
there be any "there" there in Valdez?
Early last week, we took a midconference pulse, asking a select
group of conference veterans -- including three who have reviewed
theater for the Daily News and other publications and two
who have been active in theater in Juneau and Anchorage -- what
the playwrights, actors and others attending this year's conference
were talking about, what was working, what wasn't and what could
be done better in future.
It was perhaps inevitable that speculation about McDowell's abrupt
departure would continue during the conference. The murmuring
has not, however, proved to be the dominant note in the theater
"I would say the rumor mill is still quite active,"
said Jeffrey Herrmann, producing director at Juneau's Perseverance
Theater, who has attended the conference four times previously
and was present this year with his company's "Columbinus,"
a play about the Columbine High School shootings co-written by
Perseverance creative director PJ Paparelli.
"Everyone seems to believe that Jody's departure was, ultimately,
not her choice, but no one knows for sure and no one who really
knows anything is talking. Everyone seems to believe that Edward
has retaliated by boycotting the conference and making sure his
friends, who have attended year after year in the past, don't
attend either. It seems everyone genuinely misses these people,
both because of the star power they brought (and) the legitimacy
they brought to the conference and its activities. A lot of folks
had also formed friendships over the years with people who attended
the conference year after year from New York, so there was this
feeling of a reunion each June, which seems strangely absent this
That sense of absence didn't add up to a crippling nostalgia,
however. Others said the gestalt among attendees was almost uniformly
positive, that most seemed ready to move on.
"The mission of the conference is to serve playwrights,"
said Daily News theater critic Catherine Stadem, who has attended
every Last Frontier conference. "My impression ... is that
people are too busy doing what they came here to do to speculate
on what happened (with McDowell)."
In addition to covering the conference for the Daily News,
Stadem has screened scripts and helped shape the conference program
as well as acting as coordinator for and panelist in the Play
"Many playwrights (who've come to Valdez) from around the
world are first-timers and aren't interested in what was but rather
in what is the current experience," she said.
The bulk of participant opinion she encountered seemed to hold
that things were working smoothly, Stadem stressed; the food was
better, and the faculty gave participants what they had come for
-- "really helpful, constructive criticism."
"Dawson Moore's casting of the readings is also excellent
this year," she said. "I've heard very few complaints
from playwrights about their casts."
Kristina Church, who has been cast as a reader and actor during
seven previous conferences and who has also attended as a director,
was able to lend an actor's perspective. She counted herself among
those who didn't miss what she called "the cult of personality"
that tended to obtrude in previous years.
"It's refreshing to focus on the work," said Church,
who has reviewed theater frequently for the Anchorage Press
and recently filed her first review for the Daily News.
"The celebrities added a certain panache to the proceedings
and helped make it more interesting to non-theater people, but
there was far too much emphasis on honoring the Great Ones and
not enough on nurturing the up-and-coming ones."
Perseverance's Herrmann said there was almost universal support
for the program changes Moore instituted.
"Before (Perseverance's performance of) 'Columbinus' on
Sunday, Dawson spoke, as did PWSCC interim president Doug Desorcie,
UA president Mark Hamilton and (University of Alaska Anchorage)
chancellor Elaine Maimon," Herrmann said. "There was
applause every time one of them spoke about the great job Dawson
was doing or how the conference was going to get through this
transition and be stronger and better for it.
"I was impressed that everyone was acknowledging the sweeping
changes and the difficulties that they were going to impose. People
weren't ignoring it and acting like nothing had changed."
Stadem, who attended many of the play readings as well as most
of the playwright workshops, pointed to the emphasis on "how-to
stuff ... hands-on workshops with very practical information (on
subjects) such as self-producing."
Playwright and actor Mark Muro, also an occasional reviewer for
the Daily News, seconded Stadem's sentiment about the value
of this year's emphasis on practicality over personality.
Muro had one of his own plays read, and he read in plays by other
writers and attended workshops and classes.
"The people they have brought in this year are terrific
teachers," he said, "generous, helpful, sincere and
totally devoted to theater. All the attendees are here to share
what they know."
Shane Mitchell -- Anchorage actor and director, UAA faculty member
and a featured artist on this year's conference program -- acknowledged
that his involvement in this year's conference and the UAA system
might seem to prejudice him positively to the "new"
conference. But, he said, any reasonably objective observer would
call this year's emphasis on acting workshops -- a sporadic part
of previous programs -- "a really, really positive development."
"The conference has featured acting workshops and occasional
directing workshops off and on, but ... the acting workshops this
year have been extremely well attended and energizing," he
"In previous years, Hollywood or Broadway talent would show
up to lead an actor through exercises in front of a group. But
this year, everyone in the workshops is actively participating,
not just watching one person be coached. I think this may be (because)
people teaching these workshops are actual professors of theater.
They're used to teaching people rather than being a person on
Broadway who's the center of attention."
Benjamin Brown also has long experience as an actor at the Valdez
conference, having attended "eight or nine" of them,
serving as a reader each year in at least one Play Lab piece.
This year, Brown -- a legislative liaison at the Department of
Environmental Conservation in Juneau, member of the Alaska State
Council on the Arts and chairman of the board for Juneau's public
broadcasting group -- has been active with rehearsals for Play
"In years past, such rehearsals were strictly ad hoc affairs,
and many times readers would take the stage cold to read a playwright's
new work," he said. "The opportunity (this year) to
interact with the playwright and the other actors in the context
of at least one full group rehearsal vastly improves the quality
of the readings and allows the panelists to respond to a much
fuller picture of the playwright's artistic vision."
Perseverance's Herrmann said the de-emphasis on the opportunity
to sit at the feet of stars has had another salutary effect on
the conference program, reversing a trend he saw as degrading
the experience for the average conference-goer: the development
of a hierarchy.
"While it was great to have all these luminaries walking
around and so accessible to everyone, I think a very unhealthy
caste system had developed where the people from New York were
treated like stars (which, granted, they are) and everyone else
like plebes," he said. "And that hierarchy (was) not
only deeply un-Alaskan; I think it was antithetical to the very
goals of the conference.
"The conference, under Jody's direction, was supposed to
be about recognizing the contributions of our greatest playwrights
and providing opportunities for emerging playwrights who (might)
someday become great. These goals are terrific, and I think everyone
stands behind them. Unfortunately, I think the caste system that
was telegraphed ... by those at the very top of the conference
to enable the former goal ended up inhibiting the latter. Every
play-reading session was really about how smart and eloquent the
stars were in critiquing the work of developing playwrights and
not about the work of the developing playwrights.
"It certainly delighted the audience, I think, to hear Edward
(Albee) or whomever gleefully tear someone's play to shreds, but
was it helpful to the playwright? I don't think so. I stopped
going to these sessions because it was just too depressing.
"I think the direction the conference is moving in now is
much healthier," he said. "Clearly, in the absence of
stars, Dawson is trying to focus it back on the work -- also,
in celebrating the Alaskan theater community, which is really
important. I think the featured artists who were invited up to
Alaska this year (were there) because they are great teachers
and instructors and (would) really be able to help the developing
playwrights hone their craft in ways the stars couldn't or were
not interested in doing."
Church seconded this sentiment, saying the removal of what she
called the "top tier" allowed an increased focus on
works from within the state.
"I'm enjoying the evening entertainment offerings because
they focus on great Alaska theater works," she said. "There
is so much talent here in the state, and it's nice to see that
honored and appreciated for a change. (There's) a much more egalitarian
feeling this year compared to the past. It feels like we're all
just folks who love theater and are here to support each other
in our craft."
WHAT'S NOT WORKING
But these conference-goers acknowledged a certain wistfulness
for the stars of previous years.
"I miss the occasional lightning-bolt insights that people
like Albee, Guare, Kushner, Linney, Richards et al. sometimes
provided during their responses to some of the play readings,"
"This year's panelists that I've observed so far are very
good ... don't get me wrong." But, she continued, there's
something special about having Albee, Paula Vogel and others with
vast experience providing insights into the craft of play writing.
Celebrity aside, that the stars could speak from the other side
of the mountain up which many attendees saw themselves struggling
was encouraging to people like Muro.
"They could tell you what it was like to be fabulously successful,"
he said. "And it was nice to know that there is a lineage,
that you are part of a continuous literature with people like
August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Jack Gelber and so many others.
I'm very glad to have had the fortune to listen to and speak with
Church admitted to missing one of the guilty pleasures of conferences
past: Watching as the more shameless of her peers tried to schmooze
"I miss making fun of them," she said, "but I
can live without that kind of entertainment."
WHAT OUGHT TO CHANGE
The Last Frontier Theatre Conference has changed, perhaps forever.
But, if given free rein, how would these conferees change it still
"I'd have some hands-on work, such as the Alaska Overnighters"
-- a manic write-and-produce-a-play-in-24-hours marathon introduced
to Alaska in recent years by Moore -- "with mainstage performances,
followed by an analysis of the process involved in each playwright's
experience," Stadem said. "That would be very instructive,
plus it would provide some great theater for audiences. Also,
the rehearsals of Overnighters could be open to the public, which
would also be very instructive."
Brown said advancing the cause of greater public involvement
could also be served with scholarships, so people who otherwise
might not be able to attend could make it.
"I also hope to see the Fringe Festival expand, as it is
clearly meeting a real need and providing a lot of entertainment
to a rowdy, late-night crowd," he said.
Herrmann called for the restoration to the program of at least
one "significant playwright."
"I know Dawson worked hard, to no avail, to make it happen
for this year, and I know he is making plans to attract people
for next year," Herrmann said. "If he can maintain the
emphasis initiated this year on supporting the work of developing
playwrights -- with all the great instructors and teachers who
have joined them this year -- and at the same time be able to
host and recognize the great playwrights, he will succeed in accomplishing
both goals of the conference simultaneously, and this would make
for a truly outstanding and important annual event."
Church would like to see more involvement by producers.
"Creating more of a relationship with the theater companies,
who have the resources and opportunity to produce these plays,
would be a bridge to the next step toward getting wonderful new
works on their feet and seen by a wider audience," she said.
UAA's Mitchell, who regularly works with young actors, said the
conference would benefit by providing a greater scope to those
interested in producing work for children.
"One of the things that's really exciting for me this year
is that I'm sitting on a panel for playwrights of children's theater,"
he said. "It's a serious part of American theater, and I'd
like to see more focus on it. I mean, David Mamet has written
children's theater, and when Shakespeare wrote 'Midsummer Night's
Dream,' he saw it as a family entertainment.
"Oftentimes, as kind of an advocate for the young voice,
at least in Alaska, I'll sit in on these play labs and people
will say, 'This is how kids talk,' and I'll say, 'No, they don't.
Every kid has their individual voice, just as every black person
or gay person or Jewish person does. To elevate awareness of that
stuff would be great."
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