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

By Ron Holmstrom
Special to the Star 

Theatre Conference begins this Sunday for the 25th year

This year's event will be showstopper as shows and plays take the stage


Photo courtesy of Last Frontier Theatre Conference

Sandy Harper sits at Jerry's feet with British playwright Arnold Wesker.

Twenty-five years! A major theatre conference in the unlikely location of Valdez, Alaska? Holy cats! To quote Shakespeare's immortal character Puck, "Who'd a thunk it?"

Well, at least three people certainly 'thunk it.'

Former Prince William Sound Community College, (PWSCC,) President Dr. Jo Ann McDowell and her friends, the late playwright Edward Albee and legendary New York director Marshall W. Mason, thought Valdez would be the perfect place for a world-class conference for serious theatre people and fans of the genre. They were right of course, as evidenced by the enduring festival which has now been thriving for a quarter of a century.

Dr. McDowell had long been associated with the William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas while serving as vice president and president of Independence Community College. When she relocated to PWSCC in 1992, she brought her experience and connections to bear in creating this new event and the first conference began in August of 1993.

In 2005, Dr. McDowell moved on to a new college and started the Great Plains Theatre Conference. The remaining staff, including PWSCC's new president and conference staff member since 1992, Doug Desorcie, and coordinator and eight-time participant Dawson Moore, revised the conference's mission to increase the level of focus on new work by early and mid-career playwrights. When Desorcie also moved on, Moore took over the reins of conference coordinator and the yearly event continued on.

This year's celebration of theatre, which will run at the Valdez Civic Center from Sunday June 11 through Saturday, June 18, will be special in many ways, not the least of which will be Sandy Harper accepting the Jerry Harper Service Award, named for her late husband and Alaska theatre icon.

As Moore said to me recently, "It's great to be honoring Sandy. There are many worthy people in the queue to receive this award, but I couldn't think of anyone better for our Silver Anniversary year."

Hear, hear!

Sandy is known far and wide as the unofficial godmother of Alaska theatre. Coincidentally, it has also been twenty-five years since Sandy and husband Jerry started Cyrano's Playhouse on 4th Avenue and D Street in Anchorage. Cyrano's has been a supporter and participant in the conference since the very first year, so it is more than fitting that Sandy receive this award that honors Jerry every year.

Sandy and Jerry's formative years were spent in Southern California under the mentorship of Obie-award winner Rachel Rosenthal, and both were core members of Rosenthal's innovative theatre form, "Instant Theatre" and "Instant Fairy Tales," which were highly influenced and inspired by Antonin Artaud, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. While in California, Sandy earned her Master's Degree in Human Development from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena.

In Alaska, Sandy has served on the national board of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, the board of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, the board of the Rasmuson Foundation and as president of the Anchorage Cultural Council. Sandy's accolades include the Contribution to Literacy award as the initiator of the Alaska Center for the Book; the YWCA Notable Woman of the Year (2009); induction into the ATHENA Society (2009); recognition by the Soroptimist Society for her encouragement of women in the arts (2010); an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from UAA (2011); the Lorene Harrison Lifetime Achievement award (2011); and induction into the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame (2016).

From Sandy Harper: "I have always appreciated and admired the recipients who were recognized with the award. But, I didn't imagine the personal and professional thrill of being the recipient of the Jerry Harper Service Award. It has been one of my great pleasures, through the years, to work with Dawson to choose a person who would be honored for their contributions, in the spirit of the late great Jerry Harper. When Dawson called to tell me that this year, after consulting with previous recipients, they had decided that I would be the person during this special 25th anniversary year, it was a silver surprise that brought me great joy. I hope to be in the wings with my oxygen tank for the 50th year of the conference-in 2042- and see who will be acknowledged that year!"

Harper will be presented with the award at the Gala on Saturday night June 18.

As to the rest of the conference week, there are evening theatrical performances in the Civic Center Auditorium, daily workshops, seminars and classes, and of course, The Play Lab, which is the very heart of the conference. Created in 1995 by the late and beloved Michael Warren Powell, formerly of New York City's Circle Rep Lab, new and mid-career playwrights are given the opportunity to have their work read by actors before an audience and critiqued by theatre professionals from around the world. From presenting seven plays in its inaugural year to bloating to over one hundred in 2002, the Play Lab has now presented well over one thousand readings.

As if the non-stop day-long activities of the week are not enough, there is the late-night Fringe Festival. 'The Fringe' began in 1998 when Powell had read a play he had wanted to hear that hadn't gotten into the Lab, so a bunch of people gathered in the student commons of PWSCC after everything else was done, at about 11:00 p.m., and the tradition was started. Generally focused on short work, The Fringe runs Sunday to Thursday.

"We've got another great line-up of evening shows this year, including two that were originally workshopped in our Play Lab, The Meatball Chronicles and A Very Modern Marriage," Moore said. "I love it when we can continue supporting the work beyond its initial reading."

The Silver Anniversary promises to be another golden year for the conference. For information on all of the activities coming up, please visit the conference website and I hope to see you all around the many events.


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