VALDEZ — When Jo Ann McDowell left the position of president of Prince William Sound Community College in 2005, some worried that the Last Frontier Theatre Conference would leave as well. McDowell — better known as Jody — created the event in 1993, found major corporate sponsorship for it and used her connections in the theater world to bring marquee celebrities to Valdez: Edward Albee, Marian Seldes, Arthur Miller, Patricia Neal, Jon Robin Baitz, Laura Linney, Tony Kushner and Terrance McNally to name some.
Running the conference fell to Dawson Moore, an Anchorage-raised writer/actor/producer who has enjoyed some success with projects in New York and San Francisco. Moore didn't have McDowell's high-power connections, but he did have an instinct for what made the weeklong festival attractive to both Alaskans and artists from outside the state. It wasn't the stars, though they were all lovely people. It was the opportunity to learn, swap ideas, try things out and stretch beyond the bounds of what is generally possible in Alaska.
The crown jewel of the event has become the Play Lab, back-to-back readings of new work. The emphasis on fresh-from-the-laptop comedies, dramas and skits make Last Frontier conference week the biggest and most productive exhibition of original creativity in Alaska if not the Pacific Northwest. Novices, local theater stalwarts and international professionals vied to have their work presented on an equal footing. I cannot think of another forum where so many people get the chance to sound out so many fresh artistic ideas before a live audience.
More than 50 new plays were read between June 12 and 18, not counting the late-night "Fringe Festival" and "Play Slam." They ranged from compact, complete 10-minute stories (the deceptively simple "Going in Blind" by UAA student Tamar Shai) to full-length scripts (Texas veteran Joe Barnes' Cowardesque "Arrant Nonsense by a Nose"), spoofs (Andrea Staats' hilariously cartoony "Piney Lake Last Resort") and dense metaphor ("Reaching Beatrice," a reimagining of Dante's "Divine Comedy" set in a hospital by Joy Cutler).
For some writers it was the first time they'd had anything presented to a public. Others were full- or part-time professional playwrights, Rand Higbee, Amy Tofte, David Hansen. And while a respectable number of playwrights were Alaskans, the majority came to Valdez from the Lower 48 or Europe.
Obviously, not all of these scripts were masterworks ready for the stage. But they were lively, original, different and, in different ways, entertaining (for the most part). As juror Arlene Hutton put it, the purpose of the lab was not to treat plays like patients in need of resuscitation. "Think of them more like teenagers," she said. "They're just starting to mature."
Each play had three jurors/judges with extensive theater experience who responded to the individual readings. As one of those to have a play presented in the lab, I found their insights perspicacious and helpful. There have been times in previous years when panelists performed like prima donnas, talked about themselves rather than the play or unnecessarily excoriated the writer. This year I was struck with how much attention each juror paid to every play and, as a theater critic myself, was impressed with how they analyzed the scripts in ways that felt educational and constructive.
In past years, judges complained of being overworked. They had to listen to plays all day and were then expected to meet and determine winners. Entries judged "best" received cash prizes, which didn't always sit well with the non-winners. Some likened it to the Westminster Dog Show. Though a scholarship is still presented, it's done quietly. I didn't even learn about it until the last day.
In addition to readings and performance workshops, the conference fee included five fully-staged plays, including three of the most impressive Alaska shows from last season, "Good Men Wanted," "Stalking the Bogeyman" and "Annapurna"; the lineup also included Amy Tofte's experimental look at alcoholism and love, "FleshEatingTiger," presented by the Owl and Cat Theatre of Australia, and Valerie Hager's award-winning one-woman "Naked in Alaska," a very physical memoir about her days as a stripper in Fairbanks.
The fee covered daily lunches, dorm space for those needing place to sleep, a sailing down Valdez Arm with Stan Stephens Cruises and a well-received speakeasy-themed gala banquet with entertainment provided by Anchorage's TBA Theatre Company.
The cost for all seven days of everything? $50. That's not a typo. The Last Frontier conference is the undisputed best theater bargain on the planet. Keeping the cost low means people with lots of talent but little cash can attend, even when they have to travel from New York to Valdez. It is the most logical way to serve the underserved artists of Alaska and elsewhere.
Moore and PWSCC President Doug Desorcie have done outstanding work to keep the conference alive and affordable while also making it ever more egalitarian and open, more supportive of new voices. The 24th Annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference was a testament to their efforts and commitment.
But will there be a 25th?
In a letter to conference participants, Moore noted that the big donors of past years — Exxon, BP, Conoco Philips et al. — are gone. The one petroleum-related contributor still on the program is the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. The college has become the main supporter of the event, which costs $160,000 to put on. With a reduction of 10 percent or more in its state budget allocation expected, the conference may need to "dramatically downscale," Moore wrote.
"The conference is at significant risk," he said. "We must establish a more solid funding base. Otherwise, this may be it."
Though its tone was unusually frank, the purpose of the letter was familiar — to ask for contributions. Alaska art lovers can expect more as what many consider a budget crisis besets the state.
The good news is that the arts in Alaska have received so little state funding in the past several years that getting less doesn't have to mean a death sentence, particularly when the program in question is as cheap as the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. It should be possible for supporters to cover costs by exercising a modest amount of generosity. Donations can be made online at greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu/give/lftc.
The same situation is faced by a host of art groups in Alaska, to music, museums, performance, cultural and educational gatherings of all kinds. The message to Alaskans who love art, who esteem the incalculable revelation of whatever it is that separates people from dirt, is this: If we want it to keep going, we need to be ready to spend our own money on it.
Correction: This story incorrectly identified Doug Desourcie as the President of Prince William Sound Community College. He is the former president. The current director of the campus is Dan O'Connor.