In NEW FACES OF 1956, Jane Connell sang of the hard knock life that Alaskans have during “April in Fairbanks.”
She should have waited until June in Valdez – and not just because the temperatures are in the comfy 60s.
In this tiny Alaskan town of 3,976, Connell would have met many new faces of playwrights who were here to partake in The June 8-1527th Annual Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference.
Conference coordinator Dawson Moore and his staff had to plow through more than 400 scripts to find the ones that they most fancied. I was here, 4,293 miles from home, because my new play THE WHOLE WORLD was one so honored.
Each play with a large cast received a reading in one of two large function rooms. Those with smaller casts (such as mine which only requires two actresses) got a cozier one.
At 10 a.m. each day, there was a one-act such as Elliot Kreloff’s THE DOG DIED. What happens when a Brechtian-type German director comes to Broadway and must deal with a sitcom-trained actress and a character actor who believes he can play a lead? Nothing good – for them. But plenty good for us.
At 11 a.m. came full-length plays. That included one by Adam Seidel, whose ORIGINAL SOUND (about plagiarism in the music business) was just closing its run at the Cherry Lane as the conference began.
Here Seidel was offering CALIFORNIA, which, despite its name, deals with a Wyoming oil worker who comes home only to find that his life will now officially fall apart. Butch guys are thought to be tough enough to withstand anything. Seidel has his doubts.
Then came a provided lunch and plenty of animated conversation at every table. We then attended a 1:30 p.m. lecture. One came courtesy of Eleanore Speert, of Drama Book Shop fame, who told the many do’s and substantially more don’ts that budding playwrights must know before submitting to a publisher or agent.
To make it even easier, she handed out a piece of paper with the right type of letter on one side (“I attach the first 10 pages of the script”) and an atrocious one on the other (“The play will bring in audiences and money”).
Then we attended one of the three 3 p.m. shows. As it turns out, I picked a real winner with Ward Kay’s hilarious THREE TIMES A LADY.
While Jake Crenshaw and his wife are having sex, he cries out a woman’s name. Mrs. Crenshaw is furious because it’s not hers.
But here’s the thing: it IS indeed her real name. Mrs. C, you see, has multiple personality disorder, and while they were in the middle of their union, she switched to another identity and didn’t recognize the name Jake had called out although she’d had it since birth.
At lunch, many who’d seen Kay’s play brought up THE THREE FACES OF EVE, the 1957 film that had won Joanne Woodward an Oscar. Yes, but that was a harrowing drama, and this one was just out for fun.
If THREE TIMES A LADY wends its way to Broadway and Linnea Hollingsworth comes with it, she might well win a Tony. How amazing she was in maneuvering herself from ordinary wife to a nymphomaniac to a Puritanical evangelical. Playwright Kay not only gave her the trio of distinct characters, but also the lines that got her great guffaws.
Some of the plays were in a realistic vein — including mine, where an editor who takes a certain bus to work each morning must endure a woman who’s intent on converting her to a religious lifestyle. Others were fancifully absurdist, such as Lynne Halliday’s ROOM 324. The set-up sounds like one of those walk-into-a-bar jokes that have gone around for centuries. You wouldn’t have been terribly surprised to see a psychiatrist and policeman among the pub patrons, but when a dead girl made her appearance, you knew you were in unfamiliar territory — delightful territory, too.
Once each play finished, three adjudicators commented. Most were playwrights: Arlene Hutton, Danielle Dresden, Kevin Armento, Arthur M. Jolly and Australia’s Timothy Daly.
I loved that Dresden said of my play that she was intrigued from the opening stage direction: “Rain may come on this March day that’s more lion than lamb.” But just before it was to debut, I heard Jolly warn playwrights about writing scripts where people meet for the first time or are in a psychiatrist’s office. I shook in my shoes, for mine had two women meeting for the first time.
Actually, the conference’s biggest hit was Angelica Howland and Michelle Gardner’s YOU, ME & ADAM LEVINE which was set in a psychiatrist’s office where two people met for the first time. Juna and George (that’s a woman) had some colorful adventures in trying to meet the lead singer of Maroon 5.
A packed SRO room listened and erupted with every 90 seconds or sooner. Some attendees worried that the play would become dated once Levine’s star falls. No – just as the 1979 comedy MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON’s was retitled MURDER AT THE BEST WESTERN’S once HoJo’s motels started closing, Howland and Gardner need only to replace Levine with some future hearththrob.
At the talkback afterward, someone wished that Levine could be in the play. Wouldn’t that be something several years after the play’s successful Broadway run at a benefit performance that would benefit theatergoers who’d get to see YOU, ME & ADAM LEVINE?
At night, Moore had arranged for already established entertainment to take the commodious stadium-seating mainstage. Cooper Bates performed his one-man show BLACK WHEN I WAS A BOY. In it, he admitted that when white schoolmates were harassing him for not looking like them, he endured it while fully expecting that the slings and arrows of outrageous bigots would end once he reached adulthood. Then the individuals he met would be more sensitive and mature.
In fact, no.
James Hindman brought in POPCORN FALLS, his off-Broadway show from last season. There it had starred Adam Heller as the mayor of this beleaguered burg and Tom Souhrada representing more than a dozen townies.
Heller couldn’t attend because he was otherwise engaged as the demanding father in THE FLAMINGO KID at Hartford Stage Company, so Hindman took his role. As fine as Heller was, there’s something about an actor doing his own material that can’t be beat. Souhrada, whose mastery of multiple roles was inexplicably forgotten during last season’s awards, hadn’t lost a beat when he segued from a single mother to an amputee to a crusty town mother.
And if Hindman hadn’t been busy enough, he brought a play here, too: PROOF POSITIVE, which found a good deal of humor and pathos in a one-act that dealt with a no-laughing-matter subject: America’s health care crisis.
I would have liked to have seen Luke Yankee’s CONFESSIONS OF A STAR MAKER, but it went up while my show was being rehearsed. Although I’ve never seen one of his plays, I certainly admired his memoir JUST OUTSIDE THE SPOTLIGHT: GROWING UP WITH EILEEN HECKART. But as we all learned a long time ago, we can’t catch every play that we want to see.
Here’s hoping that Yankee’s plays and all the others get where they want to go and that Dawson Moore and the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference gets bragging rights. Even if that doesn’t happen, Moore and all the others connected with the event have a great deal of which to be proud.