Valdez, 300 miles from Anchorage, is home to the Alaskan Pipe Line--as well as the eight-day theater conference--and has weathered an earthquake in 1964 and an oil spill in 1989. The Columbia Glacier, killer whales, bald eagles, sea otters, and the snow-capped Chugach Mountains are part of its landscape. Surrounded by these overwhelming forces of nature, man is dwarfed. We view drama in black boxes. Alaska is so outdoors, so frighteningly vast. How can theater happen in a place where the drama is nature?
"This place, this scenery--if I lived here, I'd be too busy looking, absorbing. I wouldn't write plays," said Horton Foote, recipient of the 2000 Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award, at the opening night of the Festival. But they not only write plays here, they celebrate the creative spirit in such a way that the mountains, the sea, the endless vistas become one with the natural forces in man.
Every year, the Festival honors a playwright--this year, Foote--and a director--this year, Lawrence Sacharow--and invites featured artists to celebrate the life and careers of the honorees. For the 2000 Festival, Betty Buckley, Mel Gussow, John Heard, James Houghton, Patricia Neal, Marian Seldes, Jean Stapelton, Mark Wright, and Joel Vig all trekked to Valdez to give acting workshops, participate on panels, and entertain. They spoke of being inspired by great teachers and by coming to Valdez; they mentored the new voices of the future. They embodied passion, success, endurance, renewal, and giving back.
Yet the essence of this theater conference is the Play Lab. From hundreds of submissions, 66 new plays are selected by a panel of judges--Ed Bullins, Erma Duricko, Daniel Irvine, Javon Johnson, Colby Kullman, Timothy Mason, Michael Warren Powell, Thomas Riccio, Katherine Stadem--to be read at the Festival. The panel offers critiques the plays, and chooses five playwright finalists to be awarded $1000 each.
The actors who participate come from all over Alaska and pitch their tents in a large room at the college, transforming it into Tent City. The play readings begin at 8:30 in the morning at the Valdez Civic Center, and are followed by lunch with one of the visiting artists. Afternoons are filled with workshops: acting with Seldes, Checkov with Sacharow, and playwriting with Edward Albee. Panel discussions included Mark Wright on the role of the production stage manager, James Houghton on the Signature Theater Company and on his new program at the O'Neill Theatre Conference, Mel Gussow on his Albee biography, and Foote on working with theater and family.
Each evening, there is a reception and a special magical event, such as Patricia Neal in her one-woman show An Unremarkable Life, or productions and readings by the visiting artists of Foote and Albee's plays. The Yukon Pacific Play Lab Award Winners were announced at the final Saturday night banquet. Alaska Governor Tony Knowles spoke (via video), Betty Buckley sang, and Albee presented the Playwright's Award 2000 to Horton Foote, testifying, "You transform the mundane into the extraordinary. The microscope you apply to the seemingly simple reveals the world."
The evenings, however, didn't end after the performances and receptions. At midnight Poetry Slams and the Fringe Festival begins in Tent City. Writers were challenged to create ten-minute plays while at the conference, and 30 of them were read at the Fringe. The president of Alaska University, Mark R. Hamilton, came to the Fringe one night and read his poems.
Valdez has 18 hours of daylight in the summer, yet the dark rooms where rock-around-the-clock theater happens shine more real and intense than the sun. As Wayne Lewis from Yukon Pacific Corporation said in his opening remarks, "Valdez, Alaska, is the epicenter of creative activity in the theater."
Excerpts from Festival conversations follow on page two.