In the fall of 1992, Dr. Jo Ann C. McDowell called on past acquaintances and friends—Edward Albee and Marshall W. Mason—to participate in the first Last Frontier Theatre Conference, produced by Prince William Sound Community College in August of 1993. Dr. McDowell had been associated with the William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas, for over a decade while serving as Vice President and President of Independence Community College, and brought her experiences and connections to bear in creating this new event.
For the next twelve years, the Conference yearly honored a major American playwright and director. Past honorees include Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Terence McNally, and many other household names. The authors were in attendance for the event, teaching classes and talking about their careers, while evening performances focused on presenting their work to participants. A year by year breakdown follows at the end of this document.
In 2005, Dr. McDowell moved on to a new college and started the Great Plains Theatre Conference. The remaining staff, including PWSCC’s new president and Conference staff member since 1992, Doug Desorcie, and Theatre Conference Coordinator and eight-time participant Dawson Moore, revised the Conference’s mission to increase the level of focus on new work by early and mid-career playwrights. The Conference still has major theatre professionals attend as teachers, with past guests including Y York, Jon Klein, John Pielmeier, Kia Corthron, Arlene Hutton, and Dramatists Guild Executive Director Gary Garrison, to mention a few.
The first conference was a three-day event featuring Edward Albee and Marshall W. Mason. The musical revue Too Young To Be Curmudgeons with lyrics by Frank Evans and music by Sande Campbell was presented by the Broadway cast of Connie Barron, Patti Wyss, and Walter Willison. In addition, Ray Stricklyn presented his award winning performance as Tennessee Williams in Confessions of a Nightingale. During the first conference Albee and Mason both agreed to join McDowell in an effort to provide a nationally recognized theatre conference in Alaska. Each year a featured playwright is selected to receive the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award presented by Mr. Albee, and a director is chosen to receive the Last Frontier Directing Award. Both the playwrights and directors selected have distinguished themselves in their craft.
Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson was the first featured playwright to receive the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award with Joe Mantello receiving the Last Frontier Directing Award. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz joined Edward Albee, Marshall W. Mason, Wilson, and Mantello for a panel discussion on “Theatre at the Beginning of the New Millennium.” Productions of Wilson’s Redwood Curtain and Baitz’s Three Hotels, both starring original Broadway cast members Jack Davidson, Caroline Kava, Steve Bassett, Pamela Dunlap, and Sung Yun Cho, were highlighted events that year. A montage of scenes entitled “Through the Eyes of Aliens: A Comparative Study of Scenes from Burn This and Seascape” was presented by the UAA Theatre Department in conjunction with TOAST Theatre. The Magic If Ensemble from Anchorage presented “A Dramatic Interpretation of American Culture in the Plays of Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson.” Mary Hunter Wolf, esteemed founder of The American Actors Company, provided the first of several inspiring acting workshops for the conference.
In 1995, the Last Frontier Playwright Award went to Terrence McNally, author of the award winning plays Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class. Tony winner John Tillinger, director of four of McNally’s Off-Broadway productions, was presented with the award for distinguished directing. Featured events in the evening were a production of Albee’s Seascape by TOAST and a musical review with Jo Ann Cunningham, who appeared in the Broadway production of Anna Karenina. William Hoffman, author of As Is, recipient in 1985 of a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, and a Tony nomination, discussed with Marshall W. Mason “Theatre for the 21st Century.” Broadway actors Paula Prentiss, Jack Davidson, Dominic Cuskern, and Steve Bassett performed scenes from plays by Albee, McNally, and Hoffman. The Play Lab, headed by Michael Warren Powell, formerly of the Circle Rep Lab, began in 1995 as a workshop for six new plays by Alaskan authors. Joining him on the panel for this one-day event were Connie Barron, Steve Bassett, Jo Ann Cunningham, Jack Davidson, Jerry Harper, William Hoffman, Paula Prentiss, Catherine Stadem, and Mary Hunter Wolf. For the first time Governor Tony Knowles and First Lady Susan Knowles were special conference guests.
The 1996 recipient for the Last Frontier Playwright Award was eminent playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Director Norman Rene, remembered especially for Prelude to a Kiss and the film Longtime Companion, was honored posthumously. To celebrate Miller’s work, Tony and Emmy winner Shirley Knight and New York actor Jack Davidson headlined readings of Broken Glass and The Price. Miller’s The Last Yankee and I Can’t Remember Anything were presented by TOAST. Another featured production was Sam Shepard’s True West by the Sakhalin International Theatrical Chekhov Center from Yuzhno-Sakalinsk, Russia. Miller’s wife, Inge Morath, presented a special lecture on her award-winning photography. Kaitlin Hopkins and Daniel Passer discussed their acting careers in the nineties and assisted Shirley Knight with an acting workshop. Molly D. Smith and Perseverance Theatre joined the conference for the first time with a scene in rehearsal from Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Eccentric Theatre Company (ETC) presented Albee’s The Zoo Story. The 1996 winner of the Kennedy Center/Northwest Drama Conference Playwriting Competition, Women of the Holocaust by Anchorage’s Amy Bridges-Williams, was performed by UAA Theater Department. New respondents for the Play Lab included Peter Filichia, critic for Theater Week, The Star-Ledger, and Back Stage; playwright Timothy Mason, author of the award-winning play The Fiery Furnace; and Daniel Irvine, formerly of Circle Rep, which again heard readings of six new Alaskan Plays. Mary Hunter Wolf was the first recipient of the Last Frontier Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Award.
In the summer of 1997 the conference featured three prestigious playwrights: Robert Anderson, A. R. Gurney, and Paula Vogel. Anderson, whose most famous plays include Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father, was the recipient of the 1997 Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award. Marshall W. Mason presented the Last Frontier Directing Award to Scott Elliott, winner of two Obies for Curtains and Ecstasy. Featured artists included Academy Award winning actresses Patricia Neal and Eva Marie Saint and producer-director Jeffrey Hayden. Saint and Hayden presented a reading of Willa Cather’s On the Divide. In addition, Ray Stricklyn brought back his internationally acclaimed performance as Tennessee Williams in Confessions of a Nightingale. Alaskan regional companies again added their talent: Eccentric Theatre Company presented productions of Gurney’s Sylvia and Albee’s A Delicate Balance and a reading of Anderson’s I Never Sang For My Father; Valley Performing Arts presented Gurney’s Later Life; and Perseverance Theatre staged a reading of Anderson’s The Last Act Is a Solo and Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. The Play Lab grew from a one-day event in 1995 and 1996 to a three-day event in 1997 with readings of 37 new plays, including for the first time voices from outside of Alaska. The Day Maggie Blew Her Head Off by Amy Bridges-Williams received a $250 prize for the best play.
August Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winner for Fences (1985) and for The Piano Lesson (1990), was the 1998 recipient of the Edward Albee Last Frontier Award. Receiving the Last Frontier Directing Award was Mark Brokaw, who directed Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Joining Brokaw for a discussion of their collaborative work was Douglas Carter Beane, author of As Bees in Honey Drown, which received the 1998 Outer Critic’s Circle Award for outstanding new American Play. Members from the Nakai Theatre and the Yukon Professional theatre company attended this conference for the first time. Eccentric Theatre Company presented Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith and Perseverance Theatre brought their production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A special performance of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory starred Patricia Neal with Joel Vig. The highlight of the conference was a reading of selected scenes from Wilson’s plays, featuring Tony-winner Delroy Lindo and Ella Joyce, who created the role of Risa in Two Trains Running. The Play Lab was a seven-day event in 1998 with readings of 47 plays from all over the United States. The winner of the Yukon Pacific New Play Award for $2,500 was Papa’s Blues by Javon Johnson.
The theme for the 1999 Edward Albee Theatre Conference was a forty-year retrospective of the new American Theatre, featuring ETC’s productions of The Zoo Story and another early Albee one-act, The American Dream. At the 1999 Conference Edward Albee presented the Last Frontier Playwright Award to Jack Gelber, who has won Obies for The Connection and The Kid. Receiving the Last Frontier Directing Award was actor, director, and theorist Joseph Chaikin, who has received six Obies, including the first Lifetime Achievement Obie Award. In 1963 he founded The Open Theatre, America’s premiere avant-garde experimental ensemble theatre. Joining Chaikin in this tribute to the Off-Broadway movement were playwright Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Ellen Stewart, founder of the renowned La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. In addition, the 1999 conference honored its first international recipient of the Last Frontier Lifetime Achievement Award, esteemed playwright Arnold Wesker of Great Britain. The 1999 conference was featured on the front page of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section on June 29, 1999. New voices for the Play Lab panel included three-time Obie winner Ed Bullins, and chief theatre critic for The Village Voice, Michael Feingold. The Play Lab heard 57 new plays read, and five plays received $1000 each for the Yukon Pacific New Play Award.
The recipient of the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award was one of our century’s most enduring writers, Horton Foote, author of Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful, and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Young Man from Atlantic. Director of Albee’s Three Tall Women, Lawrence Sacharow, received the Last Frontier Directing Award. Jean Stapleton and John Heard presented a reading of The Trip to Bountiful. Stapleton, Heard, Broadway diva Betty Buckley of Cats fame, and Marian Seldes, star of Albee’s Three Tall Women were all featured in evening tributes to Albee and Foote. Mel Gussow, author of the recent biography, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, participated in discussions with Albee. James Houghton, the Artistic Director for the Signature Theatre Company, participated in a discussion of the work of both Albee and Foote, both of whom have had seasons at Signature devoted to their drama. Oscar winning actress Patricia Neal provided an evening event at which she discussed her life and career, and she performed Love Letters with Jerry Harper from Eccentric Theatre Company. The Play Lab presented readings of 64 new plays, a record number for this event.
The Ninth Annual Last Frontier Conference honored John Guare as the recipient of the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award. Lloyd Richards, an artist, educator and innovator, received the Last Frontier Directing Award. August Wilson joined the conference to honor Richards’ career. Actors Anne Meara, Mary Louise Wilson and Jerry Stiller, who have all appeared in John Guare’s work, were featured in evening performances. Other guest artists included producer Elizabeth Ireland McCann, director Lawrence Sacharow, British playwright Arnold Wesker, play critic Mel Gussow and Oscar winner Patricia Neal. Performances by Anchorage Community Theatre, Once a Year Theatre and Kokopelli Theatre Company featured Guare’s and Wesker’s work.
The Tenth Annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference honored the past recipients of the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award and the Last Frontier Directing Award. Featured artists included Edward Albee, August Wilson, John Guare, Jack Gelber, Joseph Chaikin, Lloyd Richards, Lawrence Sacharow, Albee biographer Mel Gussow, actor John Heard and Alaska’s own Molly Smith, now Artistic Director for Arena Stage in Washington D.C. The days were filled with workshops, the Play Lab, the 10-Minute Play Development Workshop and luncheons. The Alaskan theatre companies provided readers for both the Play Lab and the Workshop. Evening performances included Paul Zindel’s Double Roast Chicken Theory of Love, Paul Sambol’s 2001 Play Lab and Audience Choice Award winning play Corky Bush, Dick Reichman’s 2001 Panelist Choice Award winning play Money, and Terrence McNally’s Master Class. An Evening with our Honored Playwrights was a historic, memorable night that included August Wilson, Jack Gelber and John Guare acting in staged readings of their plays and Edward Albee read from his play, Fragments.
The eleventh year honored playwright Romulus Linney and director Emily Mann. Other featured artists including film actors Laura Linney, Chris Noth, Michael Learned, Patricia Neal, and Courtney B. Vance; playwrights Edward Albee, Terence McNalley, Timothy Mason, and Paula Vogel; and directors Lloyd Richards, Lawrence Sacharow, and David Esbjornson. It also marked the first time Dawson Moore served as Coordinator for the event. Evening productions included Linney’s Heathen Valley, Alaska Fairbanks Shakespeare’s Hamlet, UAA Theatre’s production of Aoise Stratford’s Somewhere In Between, a compilation of Edward Albee’s work called Albee’s Men, created by the late Glyn O’Malley, and Linney reading in his play Klonsky and Schwartz with Chris Noth.
The honoree in 2004 was Tony Kushner, fresh off his recent successes Caroline, or Change and the HBO production of Angels in America. He gave a playwriting class, read from Homebody/Kabul. His work was featured in an evening produced by GMA Productions that included the first ever staging of his show East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis. Other featured artists that year included playwrights Edward Albee, Romulus Linney, and John Guare; actors Patricia Neal, Courtney B. Vance, and Marian Seldes; and Mel Gussow and Lloyd Richards. Other shows included Scenes from Tony Kushner, a night of the playwrights reading their own work, Edward Albee and Marian Seldes reading Albee’s new play The Occupant, and a tribute to William Inge, featuring Anchorage Community Theatre’s production of Bus Stop.
In the first year after the departure of the Conference’s founders, PWSCC President McDowell and Edward Albee, a new crew of featured artists was assembled, including playwrights Laura Shamas, Y York, Jon Klein, Gary Garrison, Elaine Romero, Aoise Stratford, John Yearly, and Kate Snodgrass. The awards were discontinued, as in the past they had been chosen by Albee and McDowell, and the Conference strengthened its emphasis on the work of participating Play Lab playwrights. Perseverance Theatre, Alaska’s only professional theatre company, returned and presented the docu-drama Columbinus. Other evening shows included Jill Bess’ The Mommy Dance, TBA Theatre’s Beyond the Veil: Plays from the Play Lab, New York actor Ronald Rand’s one-man show Clurman, and Blue Roses Theatre Company’s In Their Own Words, a fully staged evening featuring scenes from six of the featured playwrights. The Fringe Festival began its tradition of having a kick-off performance on the first Friday with Schatzie Schaefers’ The TiVo Tribe. The Play Lab and Short Play Lab were merged together, creating a more cohesive event. The Conference set a fundraising record.
This year featured the first time inclusion of the Alaska Overnighters in the evening programs, featuring four plays fully created at the Conference in 24 hours. New featured artists included playwrights Jessica Goldberg and Meron Langsner, improve teacher Kristine Niven, and actress Libby Skala, who presented her one-woman show Lilia!. Patricia Neal was back in attendance, and was presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska. Other evening performances included Perseverance Theatre presenting a new version of The Laramie Project, and works by six different Alaskan playwrights, including War by Dick Reichman and In a Red Sea by Coordinator Dawson Moore.
The Fifteenth Anniversary Conference’s new featured artists included playwrights Guillermo Reyes, Kia Corthron, and Arlene Hutton, who’s The Last Train to Nibroc was the final evening show of the week; L.A. actors Laura Gardner and Frank Collison; directors Maggie Lally, Judith Stevens-Ly, and Charles St. Clair; and the return of Tony-winning director Marshall Mason. The final Saturday featured the first Ten-Minute Play Slam, which provided participating writers with another opportunity to have their work seen. It was directed by Daniel Irvine, Mark Lutwak, and Michael Warren Powell, who that year received the first annual Jerry Harper Service Award for his role in creating the Play Lab in 1995. Evening productions included Equus, Fairbanks Drama Association’s production of former Alaska Writer of the Year Anne Hanley’s The Sunset Clause, Rand Higbee’s The Head That Wouldn’t Die (which would go on to be named one of the top five new plays of 2007 in Dramatists Magazine), and August in April, a tribute to the ten-play cycle of August Wilson which was brought up from Arizona by Charles St. Clair.
John Pielmeier, author of Agnes of God, joined the artistic staff this year. The second Jerry Harper Service Award was presented at the final gala to Jim Cucurull, the long-time technical director of the Conference. The late Patricia Neal performed at the gala, presenting a rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” Evening shows featured a record number plays by participants, including the Overnighters, the film Otis (starring Alaskan Bostin Christopher), UAF Student Drama Association’s production of Ira Gamerman’s Split, Arlitia Jones’ Sway Me, Moon, and a showcase of Alaska playwrights including P. Shane Mitchell, Linda Billington, and Dawson Moore. The National Advisory Board was reformed at the end of the year to provide future guidance for the Conference.
2009 saw the addition of some new inspirational figures to the Conference. Hollywood actor Glenn Morshower brought his three hour motivational presentation for actors, The Extra Mile, in addition to appearing in an evening reading of Daniel Damiano’s The Day of the Dog with Laura Gardner and Frank Collison. John DiFusco, author of Tracers, came, and interacting with him was a highlight for many participants who were involved in the 1988 UAA production of the show that was presented at the national ACTF Conference at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. And Australian playwright Timothy Daly blew people away with intelligence and craft as a teacher, panelist, and author of the evening production of The Man in the Attic. Other strong additions to the staff included Sherry Kramer and Richard Dresser. The Jerry Harper Service Award was presented to long-time Valdez Star Conference reporter Ron Holmstrom.
2010 kicked off with the first-ever Valdez production featured at the Conference, Craig Pospisil’s Somewhere in Between. Other evening productions included Anchorage Community Theatre’s production of Judd Lear Silverman’s Heart (from the 2009 Play Lab); Richard Dresser’s Rounding Third, produced by Three Wise Moose; past Lab participant Terence Anthony’s Blood and Thunder, produced by Los Angeles’ Moving Art Theatre Company; an evening of one-acts from the Play Lab; and Cyrano’s Theatre Company’s The Marriage of Zack and Ada by P. Shane Mitchell, who was honored with the Jerry Harper Service award for the many years his company, TBA Theatre, has supported the event in every way. It was the first year of the Acting for Singers workshop, produced in collaboration with the Anchorage Opera.
The Conference continued to grow in size, drawing a huge influx of acting talent in particular from outside the state; this, combined with the improving skills of the repeat Alaskan participants, showed up in the quality of the Lab readings. These were also improved through a class on how to stage the readings presented by Marshall W. Mason. The Jerry Harper Service Award was presented to Erma Duricko for the passion she brings every year to the Conference, and for her long-time critical association with the Play Lab. Evening shows included two evenings of one-acts; Moving Arts second year, this time putting together a reading of Reginald Edmund’s South Bridge, featured in the 2010 Play Lab; Alaskan comedy with Mountain Shack Theatre; and Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Arlene Hutton’s Happy Worst Day Ever, directed by Mark Lutwak.
For the 20th year, the Conference’s founder, Jo Ann C. McDowell, was honored with the Jerry Harper Service Award. The Fringe Festival had its first new coordinators in a decade, Bostin Christopher and Janna Shaw. Evening shows included a number of plays initially developed in the Play Lab, including Anne Hanley’s The Winter Bear, Eoin Carney’s The Rendering of Conor McShea, and Adam Klasfeld’s The Report of My Death, in addition to a number of one-acts in by Alaskans in Three Wise Moose’ Fourplay.
Gail Renardson, who has been involved as a producer since the first year of the Conference, was honored with the Jerry Harper Service Award. The UAA Glee Club was omnipresent, performing both the opening evening kick-off and the final notes of the gala dinner. Arthur Miller’s sister, Joan Copeland, presented a moving reading of his play I Can’t Remember Anything, along with Alaskan icon Dick Reichman. The evening performances included plays from past years of the Play Lab including Rand Higbee’s At Home With The Clarks and Kevin Six’s The Art of Love. New Anchorage theatre company TossPot Productions presented Arthur M. Jolly’s A Gulag Mouse, and Cyrano’s Theatre Company presented a stellar production of John Logan’s Red (that was later masterfully spoofed in the Fringe Festival in Craig Pospisil’s Blue). The Ten-Minute Play Slam fared well under new director Janice L. Goldberg.