This weekend I had the unique opportunity and, while it might mean having to eschew my viewing of The Hulk for a few more days, I eagerly took it. The Last Frontier Theatre Conference, held in Valdez, Alaska for the past eleven years, is one of those rare occasions where a relative outsider can get an insider's view of a world most people take for granted. Populated by aspiring playwrights, actors, directors, and producers, it is the place to see and be seen if you want exposure for your play. There were dedicated theater-o-philes, touring production casts, tortured geniuses, and deluded hacks. Having only dabbled in the world of theater myself, it was quite an experience, sort of taking a two-week Spanish course and then parachuting into the back-woods of Belize.
Unfortunately, there was never any chance of getting a press-pass to the conference; lack of perks is one of the reasons I love this job. The $250 registration fee was daunting, and besides, that actually required having written, submitted, and having had a play accepted to the conference, which I certainly had not done. Luckily, I have talented friends. Joe Rizzo, a drama teacher and prolific playwright pal of mine had actually completed all of the above requirements, and invited me and my wife along as readers, which is really how I found out about the conference at all. Like I said, I only dabble. Readers are brought along to do run-throughs of the submitted plays for a panel of professionals, who, in turn give feedback. There are no sets, no blocking, no lights, just three or four shabbily dressed pseudo-actors with scripts reading their hearts out. Turns out, being a reader is a great gig. Not only do not really have to be a good actor - there's nothing at stake for you, it's not your play, but you get into the conference for free. Joe's play was called Technical Difficulties, a very funny ten-minute piece about the backstage mishaps of a production of The Wizard of Oz. I was happy to read for that piece, and even got some kudos from a very appreciative audience - theater people are very sensitive to each others feelings - but the rest of the time I watched; I'm a one-playwright kinda guy. Here are some highlights of the three days we spent in Valdez, which constituted the short play competition and a couple of full-length evening performances.
Perhaps the best reading I saw - aside from Technical Difficulties, of course - was a beautifully written one-woman piece called A Recipe for Tomato Butter. The story of an aging Toronto woman trying to keep up in a world rapidly leaving her behind after the death of her husband, Butter was poignant, funny, and achingly sad. It is set in and around the Sept. 11 bombings and, while it has some bitingly funny insights on Canada's foreign policy, it is really about family and friendship. I was shocked at how engaging and involving a play could be, especially without any of the trappings of theater, except the words themselves. Also very nice, was a duet called Tabasco, about two brothers trying to talk about anything but the elder's imminent embarkation to Vietnam, and finding themselves unable to keep from turning every conversation into just that. The Tabasco in question becomes a metaphor for options unexamined in life, and while it seemed to lay it on a little thick at times, I thought it was nice. Over the three days, I watched upwards of twenty-five plays and, while the quality of work I saw was, overall, outstanding, there were certainly a few that needed help. I saw bad writing, bad acting, and sometimes both at once. The thing is, I hate to really trounce any one in particular because, well, help is what these plays and playwrights were there for. I guess theater will always have it's share of overplayed devils, demons, and drama-queens, but hopefully the panel discussions can help get some of that ironed out before these plays go much further.
I was also lucky enough to attend two full-length productions in the evenings. One, a spare, razor-sharp production of Hamlet - Part 1, reminded me of why I like Shakespeare. Sure the language is hard to follow, and yes, the stories do seem tired and used up sometimes, but we have to remember, Shakespeare started much of what we know as the conventional story-arc. He didn't come up with it all, to be sure, but it's guaranteed that, were he alive today, he'd be on par with Steven Spielberg. This production, largely without sets or props of any kind, breathed new and vital life into the Bard's words, and I only wish I could have seen Part 2. The other full-length work we saw was Somewhere in Between, by San Francisco playwright Aoise Stratford. Ostensibly the story of a young Irish-woman's short, pathetic life, Somewhere in Between is a fascinating tapestry of characters and time periods, all joined together by a mysterious Irish who, though homeless, makes herself right at home in a variety of time periods. I really enjoyed it, and hope it gets a wider run.
In the end, though I was getting "played" out, I was sorry to leave. The people were welcoming and friendly, the conference organized perfectly, and best of all, there was an overriding feeling of creativity and possibility. Maybe I can write a play. How about this? A young man moves from Texas to Alaska, and ends up writing movie reviews for the local paper. I know, I know, where's the the structure? Where's the hook? I'll work on it, and even if nothing comes of it, you can bet I'll be making it back to Valdez this time next year.
The 11th Annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference is being held in Valdez from June 19-28, 2003.
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