Member Sandy Burns Discovers the Last Frontier Theatre Conference
Aug 8, 2006 : Friendliness, support, insight, champagne brunches and non-stop 'round the clock theatre immersion define the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, according to Playwrights' Platform Member Sandy Burns who treked to Valdez, Alaska from his home in Natick, MA this past June. Invited to attend after submitting his short play, When It Snows, Sandy participated in a staged reading of his play and enjoyed the entire conference. In an dialogue with PP member Kelly DuMar, Sandy describes his experience, what he gained from participating, and why he highly recommends other playwrights apply to attend next year.
Kelly DuMar: Sandy, Valdez, Alaska seems like a long and probably arduous journey to see one of your short plays presented as a staged reading. Now that you have returned, are you glad you went?
Sandy Burns: Kelly – I’m very glad I went. I stayed for the whole nine days and enjoyed every minute of it. Immersion theatre, 24/7. The equivalent of 1 1/2 years of Playwrights’ Platform in eight days.
KD: What three highlights from the Conference convince you it was worthwhile?
SB: First highlight: theater all day (and half the night). The Conference started at 9:00 am each day, and went to 5:00 with readings, performances, classes, seminars, etc. There was always a performance on the main stage in the evening, the fringe festival started at 10:00 pm, then the more adventurous went drinking at the Pipeline Pub until whenever. The Conference also had something new to me; play slams. Plays are written overnight, fully rehearsed and costumed the next day, and performed in the evening. There was so much there that it was often running on a double or triple track.
Second highlight: Facilities and receptions. It’s held at the Civic Center in Valdez, where contains a theater that rivals the Huntington in Boston. There were receptions almost every night, sponsored by some group or other, on boats in the harbor, at one of the excellent museums in town, etc. Great opportunities for interacting.
Third highlight: Friendliness. For example, I couldn’t walk anywhere without someone pulling over and offering me a ride. Even townspeople pulled over, “Hey, you one of the theater people, etc?”
KD: What was the biggest creative challenge for you as a New England playwright at the conference?
SB: Perhaps a third of the people there are from theaters and theater departments in Alaska, but the other two thirds come from all over the US (and a few from abroad.), so it’s really not a regional kind of festival at all. I received, as did many people traveling from a distance, an offset to my travel expenses. I did make it a point to make contact with the people from New England, who I might run into around Boston.
KD: Playwrights often face creative obstacles (resistance, if you will. . . ) in developing their plays - internally, from the psyche and externally, from people, places, things, events that stand in our way. What creative obstacle or resistance did you encounter on this journey, and did you resolve it? How?
SB: My greatest problem is getting too close to my plays and not being able to look at them with a dispassionate, critical eye. But seeing so many plays of all different types receive critical analysis by experts and being able to talk about them with others at leisure was agreat learning experience.
KD: Is this a conference that creates more of a supportive or competitive environment for learning? Did you feel at home there? Was it an environment that supports creative risk-taking?
SB: It is an extremely supportive environment. During the feedback session, an actor stood up and said this was by far the most democratic conference of this type that he’d ever been to. Two years ago, there was some kind of a falling-out at the conference, and the woman who ran it started another conference in Nebraska, and took most of the leading playwrights (Guare, Mamet, etc,) who used to attend with her. But as someone who has been coming to the conference for a number of years said to me, “Would you rather spend your time revering leading playwrights or practicing your craft?” And they did away with awards because they felt it was just getting too competitive.
KD: Describe how you felt upon arrival. . . and departure.
SB: On arrival at the tiny Valdez airport, it was easy to pick out the theater people (expressive gestures, voice, etc.) I immediately fell in with two playwrights, and learned they had both been coming for many years to the Festival. Good sign when people return, i.e., not a “been there, done that” kind of a conference.
The last morning, there was a champagne brunch at a museum at the airport, and a feedback session on the conference. I was ready, but a little sad, to leave. It had been a wonderful conference, but it was time to get on with other matters.
KD: Who was the most interesting playwright you met? What did she/he teach you about playwriting?
SB: Gary Garrison from NYU, the author of Perfect 10, a book about writing the 10 minute play. He gave three seminars/classes. He is an extremely stimulating and entertaining teacher, and was on many of the panels that provided feedback after the readings. I’m rereading his book now, and he has a new one out. Got me all inspired in specific ways.
KD: What three things did you learn about your play that have helped you revise and develop it?
SB: I sent in a play titled When it Snows, a good choice for Alaska, I thought. (How’s that for crassness?) You are asked to submit plays that you want to work on and develop, and this one from the bottom of my drawer certainly needed work. I wrote a brief summary of all the problems I saw with it, and later learned that this summary was instrumental in getting me in. The readings are rehearsed, and the playwrights are expected to direct the rehearsals.
I was assigned two excellent actors, and one no-show, who had to be replaced. The moment it was read at the beginning of rehearsal, as usual, it was apparent where the dialog was clumsy or not well-motivated, but no time to redo it. At the readings, there is a panel of three professionals, who follow the Liz Lehrman process for feedback. Their excellent questions, one in particular about how the events that occur during the flashback change the protagonist, caused me to think deeply about how to strengthen the work.
KD: Would you encourage other Platform playwrights to attend this conference? Why? And, if so, what do they need to do to apply?
SB: Definitely. Why? – see above! The Conference puts out a call for scripts early in the spring. When I get the notice, I’ll forward it so we can put it up on our site. They get the usual hundreds and hundreds of scripts. The competition is quite intense for full length scripts, especially for production, but about 30 short plays (10 to 25 minutes) were read, so there is a better chance to get selected the first year with a short script.
For more information about the 2006 conference, go to http://www.pwscc.edu/conference/faq.shtml