When two productions of a new play from Yale University, titled in Latin, open the same night in California and Alaska, you know that the American theatrical revolution is here. New York has envinced interest, but Anchorage and Los Angeles have "Terra Nova."
The play is by 26-year-old Ted Tally, a drama of a "new land" in vivid, poetic images about Robert Scott's 1911 failure to beat Roald Amundsen to the South Pole.
This is a story about two heroic men, their dreams and realities, and is one of several new plays by young writers who look outward and upward and not, as playwrights have been doing since "Look Back in Anger," inward and downward.
Tally's script had a werkshop production at Yale School of Drama, which he was attending in the spring of '77. That summer it had a staged reading during the National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut's O'Neill Center. That fall came a professional production at Yale Repertory Theater, and word got around. Mark Taper Forum's director Gordon Davidson put in a production bid, as did the Alaska Repertory Theater's producer, Paul V. Brown, and director Robert J. Farley.
The inevitable risks taken were well advised, for Tally's play is one of the finest American dramas in far too long. Complex in design, impressive for its research, "Terra Nova" is gripping because it explores not the ignobility of man but his aspirations.
Tally begins with Scott's final moments, after he had made those last notations in the subsequently discovered journal of a fatal expedition. There are flashbacks to a dinner in his honor by the Royal Geographical Society and a bitterly humorous flash forward to an imagined reunion dinner which never could take place years later.
There is provocative placement of England's Edwardian years when order and confidence still reigned but when imaginative minds could foresee the chaos of the future.
That chaos included a shift of values, indeed a denigration of them, which Tally expresses in a discussion between Scott and his wife, Kathleen. Scott declares:
"Honor and daring and sacred duty are not empty words. I despise to see them mocked by those who would scarcely be safe and warm in their homes were it not for men who believed in them and believed enough to offer their lives. Those words are our glory."
Kathleen responds: "Then perhaps one day, they, the mockers, shall topple as well."
It was perceptive of then 24-year-old Tally to voice this warning which a generation of playwrights, to say nothing of others, have scorned in condemnation of the Protestant ethic that to live one must work at it.
There is sardonic humor in the piece. Tally uses Amundsen as a sensitive commentator visible only to the audience and Scott, but not to Scott's five companions. The exchanges of the two explorers serve to show their common understandings and basic questionings.
And there is a distinct, womanly voice in Kathleen when explorer Scott recalls their first conversation. Having observed her at a dinner in his honor the night before, Scott calls on the maiden lady, a sculptor, in her studio the next morning. Kathleen, who took keen note of him but scorned his lionization, faces up to him:
"With or without marriage, I am determined that you will be the father of my child," a testy reminder that independent women have been independent since Eve. Whether this quote is true from the actual Mrs. Scott, I know not but it serves Tally's statement.
The Alaska Rep's production is in every way a fine one, with Scott acted by Philip Pleasants, a widely experienced leading actor of American regional theaters. He has a deep, finely tuned voice and achieves the man's herioc figure. Director Farley's cast further includes Marshall Bordon, as Amundsen, Joe Meek, Miller Lide, James Secrest and Eric Uhler, as Scott's companions, and Jean Smart as Kathleen, a role she plays with a dignity as an Edwardian lady whose independence, through that declaration, is thereby given a more dramatic turn.
Jamie Greenleaf, Alaska's designer, has visioned the South Pole settings in a tone of blue which, as Alaskans point out, is an accurate statement about the frozen north. Flying over the oil world's lonely North Slope or trudging in the ski areas, one notes the blue which so often dominates the white of snow blanketing the rugged terrain from craggy mountains to the flat Arctic crust.
Using a thrust stage, the Mark Taper's Los Angeles production has predictable advantages. Playwright Tally was in Los Angeles for rehearsals, during which he cut 30 minutes, in a very small snippets, from this three-hour script, an author's right Farley properly did not presume for Alaska's proscenium stage.
White carpeting across and backing the entire Forum thrust allows facile use of scenic projections, and the Taper's technical strengths are obvious. The younger writers evidently are thinking in terms of the thrust stage.
At the Taper I found Laura Ester-man's Bohemian accent for Kathleen (barefooted at her first appearance) unnecessary, but both Donald Moffat's Scott and James Cromwell's Amundsen are impressive indeed.
Comparing the two, one might say that the Taper's production is chic, that the Anchorage one is meaty but that both are stirring.
It was early March '77 when I first came to Anchorage, attracted by the opening of professional theater in our most remote state. Hawaii, after all, is a paradise with quick, easy and cheap direct flights from four coastal cities and has no professional theater, though an innovative university one.
That the city of Anchorage, the state itself and the federal endowment are aware enough to back theater as a force in this vast area reflect just how far our American theater has come in a generation.
In its first season, the Alaska Rep began with "Scapino," "Private Lives" and "Clarence Darrow," the one-character David Rintels play (and it is a play), which Pleasants subsequently acted in Fairbanks, population 30,000, for four performances.
Dennis Rosa's "Sherlock Holmes" began the second season, followed by "The Fourposter," Tennessee Williams' "Eccentricities of a Nightingale" and "Diamond Studs," the saloon musical so grievously misplaced on Ford's Washington stage. It took two expensive planes to cart "The Fourposter" to Fairbanks and "Diamond Studs" was such an Anchorage hit that it will be revived this summer for the tourist trade.
"The Taming of the Shrew," Alaska's first Shakespeare, "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground" and Broadway's current "Deathtrap" will complete the current Alaska season in April. For Christmas '78 there was a three-week, sold-out revival of the second year's "A Christmas Carol," which looks fair to become an Anchorage Yule tradition.
Clearly, ART is a success with its audiences. Its first year's total budget was a bit over $300,000. This extended season the budget will be hitting $1.2 million, with 60 percent coming in from the box office.
"What has pleased us the most," says producing director Brown, "is the vote our audiences made at the end of last season. They asked for more demanding, heavier fare than the light pieces of our first two years. Doesn't that show something about the audiences we play to? It convinces me we made the right decision at the start."
Now 33, Brown is a New Yorker who, after his Army service, came to Alaska eight years ago and, as those pioneers of the '70s seem to do, fell in love with the place. He worked on Kay Fanning's Anchorage Daily News and, taking an interest in the arts, urged the state arts council in 1975 to consider the feasibility of starting a professional acting company. It commissioned Brown to investigate potentials and costs.
Brown did the job so impressively that the council appointed him to get going on what became the Alaska Repertory Theater. There was particular help from New York's FEDAPT -- The Foundation for Expansion and Development of American Professional Theater -- and Actor Equity.
The first season there were 21,500 paid admissions, by the end of the second, 75,000. That growth came in a state of 400,000, half of whom live in Anchorage.
Announcing his plans during the Bicentennial celebrations, Brown declared in July '76 that, "No regional theater will make it if the staff is selected on the grounds of where you live rather than what you can do."
To some who had been presenting plays on a purely amateur level, those were words to resent. Were there not enough passable actors in the state to avoid the high travel costs of bringing up people from "The Lower 48"?
Brown chose 30-year-old Farley, a stage and TV director with impressive Los Angeles credits, as artistic director in August '76. Both made the strongest insistence for professionalism.
They were heartily backed by Alaska Arts Council chairman Jean Mackin of Fairbanks and the council's executive director, Roy H. Helms, who has just moved to Washington, D.C., to become director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. But all saw the invaluable contributions volunteer organizations such as "Curtain Raisers" could make to construction, advertising, fund-raising, ushering and clerical work.
ART's board of directors reflects the community's vital role. Its president is Australia-born Pamela Towill, wife of a British oil executive. In its format of revolving officers, Towill will be followed come summer by Frank Danner, a financial expert whose interests take him frequently to "The Lower 48." In line is the trail-blazing Jean Mackin, who had a hand in planning the Tyrone Guthrie Theater foundation of Minneapolis. Besides publisher Fanning, once of Chicago, the board also includes Clark Gruening, son of the late Alaska governor and senator. These are sophisticated people aware of the responsibilities of privilege.
Brown's basic recommendation for professionalism appears to have been crucial for, although only groups of one, two or three have reached but a few of the countless small settlements scattered over the enormous area, Alaskans seem highly aware of their theater via radio and statewide TV.
Since my first visit, Robert B. Atwood's supportive, powerful Alaska Times has created a weekend section on the arts and the smaller News now has its own every Saturday.
As has happened in other regional theaters, its leaders have impressed the community by buying homes and settling in.
This sense of belonging has been vital to all the professional theaters I've visited around the nation; not being part of the community often has been fatal.
Nowhere has this been so vital as here. Visitors are encouraged to spend money but not to hole in. Those who do determine to stay and have contributions to make are accepted as fellow pioneers in this most spectacularly rugged of all American states.
There is less money in Alaska than two years ago, when pipeline work was phasing out. A ski-slope pizza of average size will cost you $12.
But those who have come to stay share a sense of adventurous pride striking to the outsider. The staggering beauty of the state, its crisp, dry air vitalize awareness of life's wonders and beauties, quickening the state's Council on the Arts.
This summer's visitors will have a taste of Alaska's theatrical professionalism with the revived "Diamond Studs," though it's a pity they will have missed the serious, compelling "Terra Nova." Its success here marks a further step up for America's most adventurous professional regional theater.