This past May, I had the pleasure of workshopping my play True Believers at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. “Where the hell is Valdez?” you ask, and all I can really tell you is that I had to take a 45 minute flight on a little puddlejumper plane from Anchorage to Valdez, and that there was totally a US Marshall on my 18-person flight, escorting a criminal in handcuffs, which was pretty badass. Fortunately, I did not end up on LOST, and instead had a fantastic week full of theatre and wonderful people in a remarkably beautiful setting.
I bring this up now because the conference is currently accepting submissions for next summer, and if you’re a playwright, it’s an opportunity that you absolutely should not skip. I was hesitant myself at first — the conference does offer a stipend for out-of-state writers, but it doesn’t cover the full cost of your airfare, and, well, Alaska’s kinda far away. But I was talked into it by my friend and colleague Meron Langsner, who said that it was one of his favorite programs in the country, and was a more educational experience for him than grad school. I thought that was a pretty bold claim, but I listened to him, and while I can’t compare it to the graduate degree that I don’t have, I can say with confidence that it was absolutely worthwhile in the development of my specific, and my personal and professional development, and that I cannot wait to go back.
You see, when people talk about a love for “theatre,” they’re talking about a very wide range of skills and tastes. You got your children’s theatre, your community theatre groups, your scrappy college / fringe groups, local professional theatre groups, your regional theatre powerhouses, and of course, your Broadway / West End scene. Within this, you’ve also got animosity between the groups — the fringe companies who hate on the LORT theatres with money, the LORT theatres that scoff at the unprofessionalism of community theatre, the community theatre types whose egos far outweigh their budgets, your annoying aunt & uncle who think that Broadway is the only legitimate / viable form of theatre, etc. I don’t have to explain this all — and I probably shouldn’t, because it probably makes me sound like an asshole — but if you’re involved in theatre, you know what I mean. There’s an air of pretension around every level, to a certain degree (I should know, because I have excellent taste in everything).
But what makes the Last Frontier Theatre Conference so remarkable, at least to me, is that all of these groups are represented, and all of them are treated with the exact same level of respect. Playwrights get one three-hour rehearsal for their readings, and the actors are probably performing in 15 readings throughout the week, and regardless of whether it’s your first script ever, or your 30th production and you’ve recently completed a residency at the Public Theatre, everyone is treated the same. You also end up meeting people from all over the world, with varying levels of theatre experience, but they all share the same passions, and some of them might give you some ideas or insights or opinions that you’ve never even heard before.
And sure, I saw some plays that were truly amazing, and others that were less so. But by leveling the field for the week, so to speak, it really brought everyone together, and reminded us all of why we love this artform in the first place. I’ll be the first to admit that I get annoyed with some people when they use the act of creation of itself to justify shitty work, but the Last Frontier Theatre Conference reminded me how to appreciate that initial creative impulse. Everyone was treated as a professional, a celebrity, simply because they were willing to put themselves out there and express themselves in some theatrical form. In a way, it harkened back to my DIY days playing punk rock hall shows, where it didn’t matter how good or bad you were; all that matter was that you picked up a guitar and you wrote some damn songs and you got in front of a crowd and you played and played and played until your throat went raw and your fingers started bleeding on the pickguard and for those 30 minutes you were still a fucking rockstar and that was all that mattered in the world. (Except this time we didn’t have to worry about shotgunning PBRs behind the dumpster before the cops show up because everyone is a fully functioning adult)
Also? Alaska is gorgeous, even if it did take me a week to realize that staying out the bar for another hour or two after sundown meant that it was 3am.
So if you’ve got a play you’re working on, send it in. I promise you will not regret it.
Oh, and tell Dawson that I miss him dearly.