Arts and Entertainment

Changing stages: The end of a chapter in the Cyrano’s Theatre Company story

On Saturday, theater artists, friends and fans gathered at Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse downtown to bid farewell to the space and pay their respects to co-founder Sandy Harper, who started the company in 1992 with her husband, Jerry.

"It has been a joyous ride," said a teary-eyed Sandy Harper in between hugs. Harper was also busy taping treasured reviews, posters and programs on the walls of the theater located at Fourth Avenue and D Street.

Harper retired as producing artistic director at the end of 2015 and stayed on as an adviser for an additional year. The company, now headed by Teresa Pond, has moved to 3800 DeBarr Road.

[Cyrano's Theatre Company will move to East Anchorage, taking over Out North building]

At the casual potluck get-together, folks shared stories, memories and tears and slipped Harper many sealed notes of appreciation.

After 25 years and more than 300 plays, there are a lot of memories.

From Shakespeare, to Pinter, to numerous plays about pivotal points in Anchorage and Alaska history written by Alaska playwrights, Cyrano's put on a vast potpourri of shows and, in the process, became an Anchorage icon.

Among the many accolades Cyrano's amassed are Governor's Awards, Mayor's Arts Awards and citations from the Legislature, Harper said.

Harper never let naysayers tell her she couldn't pull off a certain show.

"I take special pride in some of the shows where people said, 'No you can't do that. That would be impossible in a small theater,' " Harper said. "Those are fighting words."

Harper said a few of the shows that folks doubted would work in an intimate space were Tennessee Williams's rarely staged "Camino Real," Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change" and Michael Weller's "The Ballad of Soapy Smith." She said the plays required huge casts, and for "Caroline," Cyrano's planted a 10-piece orchestra backstage.

"You had every actor in town, and people who weren't even actors," Harper's friend John McKay joked to her about "Camino Real," which had a cast of 37.

For many of the artists who worked at Cyrano's over the years, the plays focused on Alaska stand out as their favorite Cyrano's moments.

Paul Brown co-produced the world premiere of "The Ticket" in 2016. The play, by Anchorage playwright Dick Reichman, is about an imaginary meeting between former Alaska Govs. Jay Hammond and Walter J. Hickel, and it drew some elite audience members.

"The families and friends of both Gov. Hickel and Hammond were in the audience," Brown said. "Seeing Ermalee Hickel see an actor playing her husband on the stage was a breathtaking moment."

Brown said the end of Cyrano's downtown presence is "bittersweet" and he was grateful he got the chance to bid the playhouse adieu.

"I get to kiss it goodbye," he said as he blew the theater a buss.

Longtime Cyrano's contributors Shane Mitchell, Erin Dagon Mitchell and Megan Bladow recalled the play "The Courtship of Zack and Ada," about the romance between Zack Loussac and Jerry Harper's mother, Ada Harper.

Shane Mitchell wrote the play for the 50th anniversary of statehood and Bladow directed it.

"It was a really cool experience to direct a show that was not just about the history of Anchorage but the history of this very space. To perform that in this space was very magical," Bladow said. "It was so fun learning about this wonderful couple and how they interacted with the Egans and the Sullivans and all these historical figures."

Inspired by the love story, an audience member got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend after a performance, Bladow and Mitchell recalled.

In a way, "The Courtship of Zack and Ada" is Cyrano's origin story.

In the '40s and '50s,  the Cyrano's building housed Ada Harper's store, The Colonial Dress Shop. Zack Loussac was the landlord. He fell hard for his tenant and they got married.

"Because of this relationship, Jerry and I inherited the building and were courted by then-Mayor Tony Knowles to become a part of his urban renewal project," Harper said. "In 1992, since we had an available space and a big mortgage, we decided to create Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse. Jerry was an exceptionally gifted actor and director and I enjoyed producing and marketing."

Jerry Harper passed away in 2005. Sandy Harper said she's currently working on selling the building.

Set designer Margret Hugi-Lewis, who said she's worked on 24 plays at Cyrano's, handed Harper a sealed note and reminisced about designing "The Road to Mecca." For that show, Hugi-Lewis set hundreds of wine bottles with candles inside them on the stage.

"It was eerie and beautiful and mysterious," Harper recalled.

"She always knew what plays would be good for me" to design sets for, Hugi-Lewis said.

Jerry and Sandy's granddaughter Jaina Willihan, 20 has sweet memories of being in the building when she was growing up.

"My grandparents use to baby-sit me," she said. "We would hang out in the lobby, and my granny and me would do our own plays. We made these paper-plate masks. And then we'd play school."