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The Last Frontier Theatre Conference

Updated: May 3, 2023

A playscript and nametag on a picnic table on a beautiful day with an Alaskan vista in the background

I spent last week at the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference in beautiful (and soggy) Valdez, Alaska. I've been coming to the conference for 11(?) years now and it's by far the best theatre conference I've ever attended. To be fair, it's the only theatre conference I've ever attended, but I'm pretty sure there isn't another one out there that I would enjoy more. It's fair to say the conference is one of the main reasons I've persisted with writing plays.

The conference used to be a Huge Deal, attracting the likes of Edward Albee (its original namesake), Arthur Miller, Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, Romulus Linney, etc. While it no longer draws as many luminaries, its cast of Featured Artists is still rife with national-level talent, including recent panelists like Gary Garrison, David Auburn, and John Cariani. The conference is based around a week of Play Labs, staged readings of submitted plays followed by comments from featured artists and audience members. There are also seminars, evening mainstage performances, a late-night fringe festival, a monologue workshop and a ten-minute play slam.

This year there were something like 54 plays accepted out of more than 400 submissions, and I was once again fortunate enough to get in (I've never been rejected, though I have gotten in off the waitlist a couple of times.) My play this year was something of a salvage job: I got about halfway through an ambitious full-length piece, hit a wall, and ended up starting over and writing a 25-minute play based on a similar concept. The result, "Swede Family Robinson," was about a divorced dad trying to win over his kids' affection by filming a low-budget version of "Star Wars" on summer vacation.

I wasn't super-happy with "Swede," mainly because the play felt, well, small: there were no attempts at grand themes or speechifying or contemporariness, just a tight little family comedy. I was especially worried after the first couple of days of the conference, since there were lots of Big Plays: sprawling casts, multiple storylines, and attempts to tackle major issues.

But it turns out my concerns were unfounded. I got a strong cast for Swede and comments were largely positive. Suggestions all fell into the "I can deal with this is a couple of hours" category, as opposed to the "I should just start over" category or the even more dreaded "I should just give it up and go work at the airport" category. So I'll spend a little more time on Swede and start sending it out to contests - after figuring out exactly how it works from a rights standpoint, as I do throw in a hell of a lot of Star Wars in there.

Anyway. The VLFTC is always a wonderful, edifying and inspiring week, and this time around was no exception. In addition to my reading, I acted in four plays: twice I read stage directions, once I played Satan in a fun one-act comedy, and in certainly my most memorable role, I played a nerdy cryptozoologist who gets masturbated twice on stage then eaten by a giant shark. Which was, you know, fun. Time to start brainstorming a piece for 2019!

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