Valdez, Alaska

This story doesn’t start last week. This story starts years and years ago with a book called, ‘Julie of the Wolves’, which was given to me as a 10 year old. In this book, Julie, a young girl with part-Yupik heritage, runs away from a terrible marriage and goes to live with the wolves in Alaska. It was a wonderful story and I read it over and over until the cover became soft and creased, the pages yellow and rounded. I was fascinated by this snowy place so far away, so different from my sunny, hot childhood in Australia. In my mind, a trip to Alaska (or any other snowy, dark, wintery places), was a shortcut to magic. I was obsessed with the place for a few months and became convinced that it was probably the most exciting and interesting place anybody could ever visit, EVER.
Turn the clock forward to 2009. I’m 25? Yes, that’s right. And attending a young playwright’s conference in Cairns, Australia. At that conference, I meet a young American playwright who tells me that he attended a theatre conference in Alaska called the Last Frontier Theater Conference. I immediately email the director of the conference to find out more information (seriously, it was IMMEDIATE – the guy telling me about the conference was sitting next to me talking, I was looking up things online). My initial intention was to submit a play at the end of 2009, but getting cast in Poetry in Action and then Bronte being accepted into the ATYP program in Australia made that idea kind of impossible. At the end of 2010 I submitted a draft of a play I really hated, simply because I desperately wanted to go to the conference and had nothing else to submit. My brother thought I was bonkers, reminding me that just because when I was living in Ireland I would be in the same hemisphere as the conference didn’t mean I was actually ‘close’ in the usual sense of the word to the conference. I was still going to be really, really far away. It was still going to take me hours to get there. I didn’t care. In the end, it didn’t really matter because I was, unsurprisingly, not accepted in on the basis of the script that I hated. In fact, its probably a good thing that I wasn’t accepted with a script I hated, because the idea is to get feedback which you can then use to re-write or re-draft the script. And if I hated the script and didn’t want to work on it, nor did I want to hear what people said about it, or, indeed, didn’t want anyone to actually sit down and listen to it, well, that was going to be problem.
Now we’re up to 2011. I’ve re-written an entirely different draft and story of ‘Fishtail’, using some of the same characters, themes and the same myth to anchor the plot. But, this time, I love the script. On a whim, not thinking much about it, I send it into the conference again. This time, I’m accepted. I can’t quite believe it. Interestingly, I had recently reconnected with the people who gave me ‘Julie of the Wolves’ in the first place and decide to visit them in Michigan on my way to Alaska. That didn’t seem so significant when I booked the flights, but thinking back on it now, that does seem an interesting coincidence or significant happenstance, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe that contributed to the huge outpouring of emotion when I left Michigan for Alaska last Saturday. Which is pretty much were I left the story in the last post, wasn’t it? 
I had been in contact with three other conference participants beforehand, a woman from New York and a couple from Vermont, and we were all planning to drive from Anchorage to Valdez (well, the couple was planning on driving. I was planning on sitting in the back of the car and admiring the scenery). The woman from New York was also on my plane from Chicago, but as I was in no fit state to be talking to anyone at that point (still mooning over pictures from my childhood), I didn’t make a concerted effort to find her until we got into Anchorage. Luckily, we did all manage to meet up and reasonably easily considering I had taken no precautions, like getting phone numbers or things like that. It was a six-hour drive to Valdez, but extremely beautiful, with views of a massive glacier, snow-covered mountains (even in June!), waterfalls and various other lovely things. This drive also introduced me to the strange Alaskan phenomenon of keeping old school buses in your backyard. Seriously, almost every house had their own old school bus. I’m not entirely sure why Alaska is so rich in school buses. Alaska may be as rich in school buses as it is in oil. Did there used to be loads more school children around? And now not so many? Or are they just really conscious of updating their school buses every year? Furthermore, why do people want the copious amounts of buses to be stored in their backyards? Is it a form of recycling or re-using (in which case, I applaud you, Alaska)? Perhaps it is because they have so much space, such big backyards, they feel they need to fill it up somehow, for example, with the cunning use of an old school bus?
Anyway, after a short dinner stop (in which I got ENDLESS fries for $3.50! ENDLESS. I’m still not over that. I could have eaten all the potatoes they had in the hotel and they would still have charged me just 3.50. I could have insisted they go out and buy more potatoes and cook me even more fries and they still could have only charged me 3.50! Of course, I didn’t, but I did try my best. It was too good an offer to refuse!) we headed into Valdez. Valdez is situated in the ridiculously beautiful Prince William Sound, which is the end of the Alaskan oil pipe line and the site of a particularly bad oil spill around 20 years ago (this was the only information the New York couple I met on the plane from Dublin could offer on the place). The town is nestled amongst bear-infested mountains that were still covered in snow. In fact, you didn’t even have to go up the mountains for snow, there were giant mounds of snow all over Valdez, just sitting there, in car parks and empty spaces, collecting dirt and slowly (very slowly) melting. The town had a record snow fall last winter and so we were able to see the remains of it. 
Of course, being so far North, Valdez doesn’t get very dark in the summertime. My first big problem on Saturday night was trying to get to sleep in an only semi-dark room. Though I was exceedingly tired, having gotten up at 5am Michigan time and been awake until 10pm Alaska time (which must have been later in Michigan time, but I can’t work it out now, too many time zones…), I was unable to fall asleep. I tried tying some stockings over my eyes as a makeshift eye-mask, but they didn’t block out enough light. And they were kind of irritating. In my jet-lagged state, I looked around the room and decided my only solution was to sleep in the wardrobe. It seemed dark in there. So, that’s what I did. I lay out a pile of clothes to try and make the ground a bit softer, closed the wardrobe doors and went to sleep; only mildly worried that if any of my room mates, who I hadn’t yet met, arrived during the night, they might open the wardrobe doors and freak out, thinking I had been tied up and/or murdered and then stuffed in the wardrobe. Either that, or they’d just think I was really weird because I was sleeping in the wardrobe. Luckily this didn’t happen and the next night I was sufficiently used to the lightness of the room to sleep on the sofa and spare my aching bones.
Sunday was intimidating, I have to say. I had been accepted into the conference as a playwright, but I was also participating in a few acting workshops because I haven’t had the opportunity, really, to do much acting since I’ve been in Ireland. I started the day full of enthusiasm, but after one acting workshop, I was reminded what sort of level of preparation, openness and truthfulness you need to bring to the work to make it worthwhile. I suddenly felt entirely incapable of doing anything of the sort and wanted to go back to my room and hide away from everyone, particularly anyone to do with the theatre or the arts. Not a great start to a theatre conference. 
I did go back to my room, but luckily one of my roommates had arrived and I was forced to interact with her. She was a lovely girl from Fairbanks and she hadn’t been up to the conference hall yet, so that gave me a reason to go back and engage with other people.
I don’t want to go through a blow-by-blow account of every day as I suspect that would be boring for you all. However, I’m also not quite sure how to draw out the highlights and I don’t think that’s just because I’m jet-lagged, I think that’s because, as saccharine as it sounds, every day was a highlight! (Can you just imagine me chirping that at you with big, bright blue eyes and my previous long blonde hair in pigtails? But, despite sounding like an orphan from “Annie”, its true). The days started early – 8am with a writing warm-up exercise, if you wanted, then the PlayLab began at 9am. The PlayLab involved a reading of a selected play, which was then responded to by a panel of three featured artists and from the audience. PlayLab sessions went throughout the day, with plays of varying lengths. There were also acting workshops, writing workshops, ‘artist life’ workshops, rehearsal workshops, discussion panels and many other good things. 
In the evening, we got a very necessary theatre break from 5pm – 7:30pm for dinner, then there were full-length, finished productions from local companies or from featured artists and after that finished, we had the Festival Fringe in one of the local bars. So, if you add it all up and you didn’t take any breaks (which I mainly tried not to do), you could have a 12 hour day of theatre. Which is pretty amazing. People often went out after the fringe too, for karaoke and drinking, though I was very responsible and didn’t start the long nights until Thursday, but more on that later.
My PlayLab session for ‘Fishtail’ wasn’t until the very last session on Friday, which meant I had a lot of time to fill before then. What did I do? I sent a lot of stuff to the fringe. I’d already sent a piece before I got to the festival, which they were going to do on the Monday night. After watching one night of the fringe, however, I got utterly terrified because my piece was very serious, verging on the sentimental and everyone else seemed to have submitted hilarious pieces involving drinking and sex and good times and rock and roll. When they finally did perform my piece, I had to *watch* it with my head in my hands. It wasn’t anything to do with the acting, maybe not even to do with the writing (I honestly couldn’t tell you if the writing was any good at this point), in fact… I don’t even know why I had to do that in the end. I think, at the time, I felt like the piece was a little close to the bone for me, just a tad too personal, and so that if anyone happened to laugh at it or judge it, or even if I happened to see the flicker of judgement or scorn passing across any of the audiences’ faces, I would have just dissolved. I would have disappeared into the carpet in a pool of shame and remorse. I’m not sure if that was because of the subject material of that particular piece or if I feel like that about most new things I’ve written on their first outing. A little of column A, a little of column B, I suspect. At 6am one morning, unable to sleep, I wrote a one-page ‘play’ for the Fringe night of one-page plays (Wednesday?), which was really more of a sketch, but fun nonetheless. Then, on the Wednesday night, I stayed up until all hours to complete the Overnighter challenger (write a play in a night on a given topic, to be performed at the fringe the next evening). Our topic was ‘The Witching Hour of America’, which totally freaked me out, because I don’t do horror or scary things (in that, I don’t watch them, CAN’T watch them without getting horrible nightmares and not sleeping for many weeks on end) and so I really felt I had no reference points with which to begin. During the evening’s performance I started trying to think of anything that had used to scare/thrill me as a kid and I remembered all those sleep-overs where an ouija board had been pulled out to talk to the ‘ghosts’ around us. So, I started with that and ended up with a sleep-over that gets ruined by one of the girls’ parents coming home and admitting to sacrificing the other girls’ parents in aid of fixing all of America’s current problems, from the economy to climate change. I think it worked pretty well, despite some clunky, 4am lines added in at the last minute to shore up the plot. I had some fantastic actors in the piece, so that certainly helped.
Throughout the week, I did the monologue workshop with Laura Gardner and Frank Collison (they’re coming to Australia soon for workshops, Australian acting friends, so keep your eyes peeled), which was great fun and a good refresher of all the work you have to do to get something up to performance standard. I was working on a monologue from a show written by my friend from New York and by the time I performed it on Saturday, I got many lots of laughs from the audience, which was great. Its always nice to get a laugh. I remember some Australian comedic actress saying that whenever she couldn’t hear people in the audience laughing she’d think, ‘Well, if they’re not laughing, maybe they’re smiling and I can’t see that in the dark’, which is always my comfort, but its always nice to get a laugh too.
In the afternoons, I was going to the Acting for Singers workshop and working on an old favourite song of mine, ‘I Won’t Mind’. It’s a gorgeous piece by Jeff Blumenkrantz, from an unfinished musical called ‘The Other Franklin’. It was a great one to work on as it has such a strong story. Also, I’d always had a problem with it, in that I could really feel the story and the emotion whenever I practiced, at home, by myself, away from people, but as soon as I went to perform it, I clammed up. We started by doing our songs as monologues and imagining the circumstances around us, which must have made something finally click for me, because all of a sudden I couldn’t stop feeling all the emotion in the song, to the detriment of my singing (you really can’t sing if you’re choked up). With the guidance of tutors Kim Estes, Nancy Caudill and Juliana Osinchuck I managed to head towards a nice midway point with the song (emotion/singing) whilst also honouring the notes and rhythms written by the composer. I still think I sang it better at my final rehearsal than in the performance in front of everyone (my throat got majorly dry – panic), but, hey, I still think it went well. Apparently I made people cry. I made ’em laugh and then I made ’em cry. Not bad for a morning’s work.
But, of course, the main reason I was there was to hear my play, ‘Fishtail’ being read. That happened Friday. I had a rehearsal Thursday with the actors, which I was really happy with and they did excellently in the Friday reading too. I’m not going to go into great detail about what was said and not said in my feedback, but I will say that I was very pleased with the emotional reactions I got to the script. Even better, I was able to take on board the criticisms/feedback in a way that I have never been strong enough as a writer to do before. I was able to hold onto my idea of what the script was about and what I was trying to achieve. All of those things were exceeding good, especially considering my reaction to the piece I had read at the fringe earlier in the week.

We’re on a boat!

Outside of the actual ‘events’ of the conference, I met some incredibly wonderful people and had some amazing nights. Thursday was bonfire night and despite having only gotten 4 hours sleep the night before (Fringe Overnighter challenge), I went out and ended up staying out the entire night. Its kind of easy to stay up all night in summer in Alaska, because the light convinces you that even if you’re feeling tired, you’re meant to be awake now. The bonfire was lovely and warm, set up next to a fast-flowing creek, cold from the melting snow. This was followed by a ‘Warrior Breakfast’ at one of the local hotels (you’re a warrior because you’ve stayed up all night). I had French Toast with maple syrup – so American! There were many other ‘American’ things on offer, like ‘biscuits and gravy’, which kind of looked like scones and some sort of cream, but I wasn’t willing to brave it. I think it also had meat in it, which weird-ed me out, considering it looked like devonshire tea. This made my all-important Friday a little surreal from lack of sleep, but I managed to get through it. Friday night we went out on a glacier cruise at about 9:30pm, which involved a great deal of excited squealing and running around the boat on my behalf (which subsequently led to an extended slapstick routine involving alleged sea otters on one side of the boat and me an another playwright friend getting confused as to which side of the boat and crashing into each other) as well as bad Kate Winslett/Leonardo DiCaprio impressions and endlessly repeated refrains of Lonely Island’s ‘I’m on a boat!’ Of course, the light completely confused me and even though we got off the boat after midnight, I felt like I could go out for a drink or two and some karaoke, despite having to be up for tech rehearsals for monologues and songs at 8:30am the next day. I was very responsible, sang one song, drank water and was in bed by 1am. Saturday was the gala dinner and we all got dressed up, looked swanky and had a lovely time congratulating ourselves on a great week, thanking our sponsors, featured artists and the local community. I also got to hear the local glee club perform, which was majorly exciting and hugely entertaining – much better than that famous show with the irritating characters.
Sunday morning, after only a few hours sleep, I started the long trek home to Ireland. It involved a 6 hour drive to Anchorage, evening flight to New York (with a stop-over in Seattle), three train rides across New York to get from Newark Airport to JFK, 5 hours or so of sitting around in JFK airport, an evening flight to Dublin and then a 4 hour bus ride to Cork. I stumbled into Cork yesterday morning with my huge bag, having slept an indeterminate amount of hours in a sitting position, wearing smelly clothes and looking slightly worse for wear. I managed to stay up until 10pm with the help of Facebook and specifically in the form of photos from Alaska and new American friends. I’m now in my little apartment for the Midsummer Festival, counting down my last 10 days in Ireland (of course I’ll be coming back to visit, but, still… this is the last few days before I move all my stuff over to London).
As I look out on the familiar slate-grey Irish sky, Alaska is beginning to feel like some sort of magical, surreal dream. I fell into some crazy deep sleep and made it all up. I left on a major high, feeling like an all-powerful artist, full of optimism. I’m still trying to process everything that happened and so I’m afraid this blog post might sound little more than a grocery list of the week, rather than a true explanation of how I felt and any amazing insights I may have had. Most of all, right now, I’m just trying to keep at bay a real feeling of sadness and loss. I’m missing all my new friends, the constant diet of theatre (reading it, writing it, performing it, watching it, thinking about it, talking about it, critiquing it), the gorgeous scenery. I’m even missing those damn school buses.

Happy playwrights at the Gala dinner
Gussied up at the gala dinner
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