The phrase most consistently associated with Rand Higbee is "hysterically funny." It pops up repeatedly when people talk about the man and his plays -- the most recent of which is receiving its world premiere at Anchorage Community Theatre this month.
"At Home With the Clarks" marks the latest notch in the career of a playwright, strongly associated with Alaska, whose star is steadily rising.
Best known for ingenious off-kilter comedies, Higbee might be called the Neil Simon of the surreal. But he didn't start out as a funny man. He studied play writing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas where, he said, "They really pushed me away from comedy. I'd write one and they'd say: O.K. That went over well. Now let's see if you can write a real play."
Higbee grew up in Spearfish, South Dakota and earned a teaching degree in that state. He started writing plays as classroom exercises for high school students and, eventually, began to pursue the craft in earnest. It wasn't a living, but his scripts began to get attention from certain circles in the theater world, including in Alaska.
"I think it was 2004," Higbee recalled. "Dawson Moore was doing one of my plays at Prince William Sound Community College (in Valdez) and invited me up. I thought it would be fun to see one of my plays and see Alaska at the same time. I thought it would be a one-time deal. But Dawson kept insisting that I needed to come back up for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference."
Higbee wasn't sure. "I've had bad experiences in the past with theater people," he said.
But then his play "The Head That Wouldn't Die" was accepted for a reading at the conference and he decided to check out the event.
"To my surprise it was a lot of fun," he said. "There's not a lot of ego up there, just people having a good time, getting new work out there, being heard, talking about how to rewrite it. I've been up several times since. You make a lot of friends that you see only once a year."
Dropping the drama
"The Head That Wouldn't Die" received a full staging at the 2007 conference. TBA Theatre reprised it the following year at Cyrano's in Anchorage. The play caught audiences off-guard, starting as a skit spoofing old science-fiction horror films in the first act then taking unexpected turns that created a deeper significance without loosing any laughs. Daily News theater reviewer Maia Nolan found it "hilarious. High drama it's not, but it sure is fun."
"I wrote drama for a while," said Higbee. But with "The Head that Wouldn't Die," he said he began to realize the work of his to which audiences seemed most responsive was comedy.
"It's a competitive business and you gotta go with what your best at," he said. "The sci-fi thing went over pretty well in 'Head' and I've done some more of that."
His play, "The Lightning Bug," for instance is "a superhero science fiction type of thing." When that play was read in Valdez in 2009, a visiting director from St. Mary's University in Winona, Minn., immediately offered to produce it in the school's next season.
The "superhero" thing is also featured in his most recent triumph, "A Girl Named Destiny," produced by Venus Theatre in Laurel, Md., last year. This play starts as a romantic comedy and, by the second act, has become a gender-reversing fantasy that borders on absurdity without quite snapping the cord. It was lauded by writers who track the alternate theatre scene in the Washington, D.C. area. "An uproarious journey," said critic Amanda Gunther in DC Metro Theatre Arts. "Love may be strange, but this production takes it to a whole new level."
"At Home With the Clarks" follows something of the same pattern, taking a stock genre and flipping it on its head. This time the model that gets the Higbee treatment is the formulaic family sitcom of the 1950s and early '60s.
"It's 'Leave it to Beaver' meets 'Night of the Living Dead,'" said Nate Benson, who is directing the debut for ACT. "It takes those wholesome comedies from yesteryear and turns them inside out. The first half of the first act, you're in the middle of a 'Father Knows Best' rerun. Then everything changes and we have to deal with an apocalypse."
"The idea of it came from talking about those old sitcoms," said Higbee. "People would always say what an 'innocent' time it was back then. Then you'd remember what was really going on. The play is an imagining of what would have happened if some of the events we feared in the '60s had come true, like the Russians attacking or World War III."
Once again, the Last Frontier Theatre Conference supplied the connection between playwright and production.
"In 2011, Dawson picked 'At Home With the Clarks' as one of the plays to be read and selected me to read the stage directions," said Bill Cotton, ACT's executive director. "I loved the play and the clever script and asked Rand if we could produce it."
"(Higbee) is bravely creative, writing about diverse subject matters that I don't see anyone else tackling," said Moore, who has directed the conference for the past several years. "I love that he writes shows that are appropriate for younger audiences. He earns his laughter without having to resort to foul language or grotesque imagery."
His comedy has layers and depth, said Benson. It may look like a wacky farce about old television shows at first, but "you couple that with the idea of the cultural shift that happened in the 1960s and it leaves you with a lot to think about. It's not just a screwball comedy."
Benson said there's a lot of excitement among the six performers in the cast. "Probably a fiercer drive and dedication than what you'd usually find -- and these are already some very dedicated people."
That the show is a world premiere adds to the buzz, but also affects how he approaches it, said Benson, whose recent credits included two excellently-staged comedies, "The Underpants" and "Lend Me a Tenor."
"Usually when I'm handed a script, I think: How am I going to do this, what's my interpretation of this?' But because this is the first production, I want to be sure that I'm as close to what Rand means as possible. We want this to be Rand's interpretation."
"At Home with the Clarks" will be Higbee's third show in Anchorage. In addition to "The Head That Wouldn't Die" he's also participated in the Alaska Overnighters, which give an author 12 hours to write a script that is produced fully-staged and off-book 12 hours later.
Despite having a record that most aspiring authors would envy, acclaim and performances, winning some key prizes, and even having one of the most-produced high school plays in the country -- the one-act "Next!" -- Higbee keeps his day job in the shipping department of a safety equipment company in Redwing, Minn.
"I sit in front of a computer all day at my job, then I sit in front of a computer all night working on plays," he said.
He's currently writing a new full-length play that will depart from his previous formula. "It's told in little segments with different characters," he said. "Almost like nine or 10 little plays. It's hard to describe and I'm not sure how people are going to react to it."
They'll probably think -- and certainly laugh. "First and foremost," said Moore, "Rand is hysterically funny."
AT HOME WITH THE CLARKS by Rand Higbee will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 31 at Anchorage Community Theatre, 1133 E. 70th Ave. Tickets are available at actalaska.org or by calling 868-4913. A review is posted atadn.com/artsnob.
THE LAST FRONTIER THEATRE CONFERENCE will take place May 18-25 in Valdez. Information is available at theatreconference.orgReach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.