Czar Alexander II had no plans for exporting artists to his bleak trading post of Sitka, Alaska, and when Andrew Johnson's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, purchased it and a lot more in 1867 the notion of drama, dance mime and music was consolidated in the fiddles and banjos the trappers and fishermen took along for company.
Now Alaska has joined the short but growing list of states that have an official state theater. This is development of compelling import for the American performing arts. The tides and tensions leading to ART - the Alaska Repertory Theater in Anchorage - are a reflection of the full 50 states and the peculiar circumstances of the 49th.
Considering that Virginia became the first state to have a state theater as recently as 1946, when Robert Porterfield of Abingdon's Barter Theater persuaded the legislature "to help keep the boys down on the farm," the fact that Alaska now has joined the parade represents swift, sweeping change with both state and national implications.
By far the largest state, Alaska, if superimposed on the lower 48 states, would stretch from Atlanta to San Diego. To this immensity add a climate which, if less brutal this winter than normally, remains a wesome.
Initially with fur-traders and fishermen, then with the miners, Alaska after dark meant boose, saloons and skirts. In a visit last week, I was amused at Fairbanks' Alaskaland, a mini-Disneyworld, to find two pretty homes proudly labeled as "houses of ill fame," a rather odd boast when one listens to the plethora of religious programs on radio and TV.
Gradually, with the rise of university campuses and impressive facilities even in grade schools, amateur theatricals and musical organizations have spread. Since the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, this appreciation of the lively arts has become state-wide. The University of Alaska's TV and radio stations at Fairbanks and Anchorage have the same content as public broadcasting stations in the lower 48, and local discussions are broadly beamed.
The weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts initially were scratched this winter, but the howl from some 1,000 listeners and subsequent sponsorship by Alaska Statebank and Texaco led the often critical Anchorage Daily News to praise the giant concerns.
A volunteer arts official said that there are some 300 groups in the state involved with arts and crafts, from painting and sculpting to performing in small, scattered communities. On a larger scale are the Alaska Assn. for the Arts at Fairbanks, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Anchorage Arts Council and the Greater Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.
Some funds for school programs come from the National Education Assn., some from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. And there are links to and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, though Alaskans regret that the state has not yet been represented on its board.
The state legislature has alloted $1.60 per capita of state tax money to the arts, placing Alaska first among the 50 states in this category. That is a breath-taking statistic. The catch, of course, is that there are only about 400,000 capita in the state.
To a degree, this has miffed some amateurs who've struggled along with no pay for passionately dedicated service. Why, they ask, should we pay our tax money to import talent when we have our own state talent? Further, the population proportions heavily favor Anchorage, which has half the 400,000 people.
The relationship between Fairbanks and Anchorage is like that between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the older city sniffing at the newer one's wealth and splash. Fairbanks was founded in 1902 and has about 32,000 permanent residents, while Anchorage was founded 13 years later and is the commercial capital with 200,000 population.
Juneau, the capital, goes back to 1880 but has only about 18,000 residents and worries about a new capital planned for Willow, about 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, Sitka, site of Alaska's discovery, has 7,300 residents but is a tourist attraction. These are the largest population centers.
To them and some settlements the councils dispatch small proffessional groups or solo performers. Mime, needing neither props nor elaborate set-ups, is immensely popular. Watching the Oregon Mime Theater (true mime, for it uses no music) play on a Saturday night in Juneau, one feels that hungry sense of expectancy before the curtain rises. Predominantly in its teens and early 20s, the audience rises to a standing ovation two hours later. Francesco Reynders, Elizabeth Page and Burl Ross are highly skilled artists and merit the recognition. They've traveled in all parts of Alaska for a total of 26 weeks in three years, roaming from the big towns to tiny huts in the tundra.
There are amateur, council-pushed productions, currently from Brecht's "Mother Courage" to Gilbert and Sullivan favorites. The American Assn. of University Women even takes to a stage for Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap." The McLain Family Band, of Berea, Ky., is on a month-long tour and highly regarded to SRO status.
Inevitably, Anchorage has become home for Alaska's state theater because it has the largest audience but, as inevitably, that is cause for some resentment.
Handling this with the care of a man walking a tightrope between World Trade Center towers is 28-year-old Paul V. Brown. Long Island-born, Brown came to Alaska eight years ago, fell under its spell and become a reporter on the News.
Brown took on volunteer work with theater groups and the Anchorage Arts Council and two years ago was appointed by the Alaska State Council on the Arts to study prospect for a professional theater in the state.
Brown came up with a plan involving professionals and volunteers, and for a home settled on the not perfect but adequate 620-seat Sydney Laurence Auditorium, named after Alaska's most noted painter. The city arts council voted renovation funds.
The initial aim has been, as it was with Moliere and Shakespeare, to please the audiences. The first production was the British-Italiante-commedia del'arte version of Moliere, "Scapino". Next comes Noel Coward's "Private Lives," with a smaller cast of five. Finally there will be David Rintels' "Clarence Darrow," in which Philip Pleasants will play the single role, touring to Fairbanks to end the three-month first season May 8.
The company level is uniformly solid, technique and training of substantial level, no weak links in the large first cast. The first season is brief but now that so respectable a start has been made, the challenge is to continue and build. It is a fascinating experiment and its outcome will be known only five or 10 years from now. Will it then be a memory or an actuality?