The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Ron Holmstrom
Special to The Star 

Theatre Conference features non-stop events

An insider's look inside at world-class event for playwrights and actors


When summer rolls around, many of Alaska's theatre folks take something of a hiatus. There is really no competition with non-stop sunlight, fishing, hiking, biking and the myriad other activities Alaskans look forward to through all the dark, cold days of winter.

Except for ... the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez.

Now in it's twenty-third year, the conference was begun by former PWSCC President Jo Ann McDowell, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee and legendary New York director Marshall W. Mason. Over the years, the event has attracted such theatre luminaries as Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Terence McNally, Lanford Wilson and many other household names. These authors were in attendance for the events, teaching classes and talking about their careers. Featured artists have included Eva Marie Saint, Jean Stapleton, Marian Seldes, Patricia Neal and many, many more.

Since McDowell left the college in 2005 to start the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the directorship fell into the more than capable hands of Dawson Moore, a UAA graduate and award-winning playwright himself. Under Mr. Moore's guidance the event hasn't missed a beat.

The conference has become an internationally recognized festival, drawing playwrights, actors, directors and theatre technicians from far and wide. Each year, the town of Valdez is literally flooded with attendees and the town's population swells considerably.

This year the event will continue through Saturday June 20. While there are workshops, classes, evening presentations of plays in the center's auditorium and much more, the main focus each year is on the readings of new works in the Play Lab.

The Lab, headed by Michael Warren Powell, formerly of the Circle Rep Lab, began in 1995 as a workshop for six new plays by Alaskan authors and has expanded to include new works from playwrights from all over the world. While hundreds of plays are submitted, only a few dozen are selected to be performed as staged readings in the Lab. Plays of various lengths are read on stage by attending actors and critiqued by a panel of theatre professionals. After that initial critique, the labs are opened up to audience comments. The chance to have a new play read and commented upon by one's peers is an invaluable aid for the budding novice or even the experienced playwright. Plus, you, as the audience, might be hearing a future hit at it's very beginning. Many of the plays read in these labs have gone on to successful productions on stages across the country.

The Harper Award is presented each year at the Saturday evening gala on the final day of the conference. This year, it will be presented to the husband and wife theatre team, David Edgecombe and Elizabeth Ware. Familiar to many in Valdez, it is very fitting that this will be the first time the award is given to two people in the same year. They have been a valued part of the conference and the theatre community for many years.

In 2007 The Jerry Harper Service Award of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. It was named after Jerry Harper, a true icon of Alaska's theatre for his work with Cyrano's Playhouse and elsewhere. At the Conference, Harper performed in numerous evening productions, including the Dick Reichman's two-person play "Money!," Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," and "Love Letters" with Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal.

Having relocated to Anchorage in 1990 when Edgecombe was hired as Professor of Theatre at UAA, the couple had moved from Indiana, where they were the founders of the Indiana Shakespeare Company. Ware also became an Adjunct Professor at UAA, where they both worked until their retirement earlier this year. In Alaska, they are known not only for their work with the University, but also through their extensive work with Cyrano's Theatre Company and their own company, Edgeware Productions, which brings Shakespeare into Alaska's public schools.

They both worked extensively with Jerry Harper before his passing, with Elizabeth playing Jerry's wife many times. Their involvement with the conference since it's second year have included teaching classes, sitting as Play Lab panelists and producing plays for the evening performances. Their production of "A Delicate Balance " was performed for Albee and starred Jerry Harper and Ware. If you see Edgecombe and Ware around town during the conference, be sure to say hello to them and congratulate them on their award and their lifetimes in the theatre.

File photo courtesy PWSCC

Actors reading during a previous theatre conference play lab.

For this year, Edgeware Productions will be presenting their Cyrano's production of "Macbeth," Directed by Edgecombe. The play stars Elizabeth Ware as Lady Macbeth and Mark Robokoff in the title role. I caught this production in its initial run in Anchorage and it is not to be missed. Set in a kind of anywhere, kinda steam-punk world, with an original score by Alaskan goth duo Cliff and Ivy, this one is well worth seeing. The work of the three witches alone is a sight to behold.

If you have never attended the theatre conference, this is a great one to make your first time. If you have, you already know what a terrific event this is. There is something going on every day, nearly non-stop for the entire week: workshops; classes on acting, directing and more; performances and lunch breaks for a meal and general schmoozing in the center. You can pick and choose from the program how much you want to do and see. But do get over to take part in some of the activities. I have been attending the conference since the very first year and I continue to be amazed.

Check the Last Frontier Theatre Conference website for more.


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