Theater News

Who’s Afraid of Alaskan Wilds?

Edward Albee leads the trek north.

Edward Albee atThe Last Frontier Theater Festival
Edward Albee at
The Last Frontier Theater Festival

Edward Albee and Dr. Jo Ann C. McDowell dreamed of creating a place to honor playwrights of achievement and nurture new voices. Their vision became one of the great celebrations of theater: The Last Frontier Theater Festival in Valdez, Alaska. Now in its eighth year, the festival ran from June 10 through 18 at Prince William Sound Community College.

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.

Horton Foote accepts his award
Horton Foote accepts his award

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.

Jerry Harper and Jean Stapletonread at the Festival.
Jerry Harper and Jean Stapleton
read at the Festival.

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.


A scene from a reading at the Festival.
A scene from a reading at the Festival.

TheaterMania: Tell us about this Festival, Mr. Albee.

Edward Albee: The conference gives experience and exposure to young playwrights, and helps them push their craft.

TM: What makes you committed to new play development?

Albee: I like to go to the theater to see plays that are interesting and provocative–new and experimental. I try to encourage as many people as I possibly can to write plays that I want to see. If you have been around for a while, and you’ve accomplished a few things and you know about theater, it’s your responsibility to share what you’ve learned with other people, with young playwrights. I teach at the University of Houston, where I run playwriting workshops. I lecture and do workshops at various schools around the country. It’s what one should be doing.


Dr. Jo Ann C. McDowell is the director of the Last Frontier Theater Festival and president of Prince William Sound Community College.

TM: How did this Festival begin?

McDowell: My mentor in college, Margaret Goheen, inspired me. We are here today because of her. I graduated and eventually became president of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas. In 1981, Margaret said, “We must do something to bring attention to William Inge.” He had left the college his original manuscripts. We raised the money to catalogue that collection, and started the William Inge Festival. I did that for 12 years, meeting Edward Albee, Marian Seldes, and Horton Foote.

The Arco Oil people, who had a home office in Independence, Kansas, were our benefactors and endowed that conference. We owe them so much for what they did. Arco came to Alaska and were responsible for recruiting me here. I thought I was leaving the fast track, could take a few years in a quiet place and reassess my career. I sent out my change of address cards. Edward wrote back, “So that’s where you are. Do you want me to come?” We found a huge theater environment here. Maybe it’s the darkness, the weather, the remoteness or the beauty of it, but this is a theater state. Edward Albee is the vision. His commitment is the reason we are here.


TM: Why theater?

Mel Gussow: Theater is an immediate art. The idea that anything can happen on the stage–something great, something not–caught me, and it’s kept me going for many years. I love film and dance and opera, but theater is my primary interest.

TM: How has theater changed over the years?

Gussow: The experimentation that goes on Off-Off Broadway and in regional theaters is what lends vitality to theater. It’s still there, as it was years ago. Off-Off Broadway and regional theaters are the heart lines of the American theater.

TM: Where are the new voices coming from today?

Gussow: Women writers. If I had to bank on anything happening in the next ten years, I would say some of them are going to amount to something very important in the theater.

TM: Would you tell me some of their names?

Gussow: Jessica Goldberg, Brooke Berman, Kira Obolensky, and NaomiWallace.

TM: What was it like writing a biography of Edward Albee? You two almost look like brothers.

Gussow: Maybe I’m his long lost brother. It did help knowing him so many years. It was a trust. It was, with his agreement, a totally independent project. He’s not easy to know, which is part of the challenge of doing a book like that. Other people are much more out there. He’s changed over the years. In maturity he’s become much more at ease with people, more open and giving. There always was the image of him being somewhat reclusive; he’s not at all. Albee has done an awful lot for emerging playwrights.


Michael Warren Powell is the director of the Festival’s New Play Lab.

TM: How do you work with the playwrights?

Powell: We are here as mentors and supporters. We listen to what the playwright is intending, and tailor our responses to be helpful. We are not critics. I hope that all playwrights come away from the conference with inspiration, encouragement, and a new understanding of their own work. We do not rewrite or suggest improvements that would make it our play and not theirs. We are part of the delicate process of developing these new works.