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Sandra “Sandy” (Gross) Harper

Photo of Sandra “Sandy” (Gross) Harper

Sandy grew up with an older brother and an entrepreneurial mother who owned a womenʼs clothing store and a father who was responsible for the storeʼs public relations. While growing up in this small town in the midwest (Centralia, IL), she eagerly participated in her schoolʼs plays and dramatic events. Her parent supported these interests, taking her to see major theatrical productions in the near-by city of St. Louis. Then, at the age of sixteen, she received a scholarship to a summer theatre camp and fell in love with theatre and the course of her life was set. Determined to be in the theatre world, Harper, at the urging of the life-long friend met at the camp, enrolled in Boston Universityʼs well-known theatre department. She then was invited to attend the highly regarded Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Following the conventions of the day, Harper entered into a marriage at too young an age. The marriage did not last. Harper credits the social and political ferment and upheavals of the 1960ʼs-the anti-war protests, the black power, racial justice and womenʼs movements-as teaching her how to grow up. That exposure to the social and political movements influenced her approach to theatre and taught her to value plays with a social message. Her education in the theatre arts continued through summer stock opportunities and in Los Angeles where she and Jerry, the love of her life, trained together in an innovative new theatre form under Rachael Rosenthal known as “Instant Theatre” and “Instant Fairy Tales”. This new technique involved training in how to be totally present in the moment and how to engage in instant improvisation. Harper considers theatre to be a life-long education, since all experiences can be “grist for the mill”, providing stimulus for a lifetime of continuous curiosity and never-ending exploration and discovery. Harper followed up her interests in human consciousness, awareness and the creative imagination with formal academic study, obtaining a Masterʼs degree in Human Development at Pacific Oaks College in 1985. Earlier in 1979 she had received an undergraduate degree from Immaculate Heart College. She further explored human consciousness through performing the research for a book entitled “The Aquarian Conspiracy” written by Marilyn Ferguson, which discusses consciousness research and social transformation and popularized the idea that society and individuals were experiencing a paradigm shift. Arriving in Anchorage in the late 1980ʻs when husband Jerry inherited the historic 1915 Loussac Building from his stepfather, they opened a cultural mini-mall in the building featuring a bookstore and movie theatre. When competition later crippled the profitability of the bookstore, they decided to build a theatre in that space and thus created, in 1992, Cyranoʼs Off-Center Playhouse, the home of Cyranoʼs Theatre Company. Under Harperʼs leadership the company has provided an eclectic menu of professional quality performances of cutting-edge, classic, contemporary and original plays. It has established itself as a vibrant presence in the life of downtown Anchorage and is known
throughout Alaska. From the beginning, the theatre’s mission has been not only to provide stimulating and thought-provoking entertainment, but to offer the opportunity for Alaskan theatre artists to participate in live theatre and to practice their craft as playwrights, actors, directors and technicians. In recognition of the time and talent dedicated by artists, Cyrano’s has, from the beginning, offered participants a small stipend to underscore the professional nature of their work. Additionally, the company has always offered affordable ticket prices as part of their mission. As the  Producing Artistic Director of Cyrano’s Theatre Company, Harper nurtured, encouraged and commissioned Alaskan playwrights, leading to Alaskan and national premieres of new works. Over the years, she sought to identify, foster and mentor new talent from throughout Alaska, with a strong focus on women and Native cultures. Harper believes that in the theatrical world you learn your craft by “doing it” so when talent was identified, she encouraged the writer, challenged the inexperienced to direct and recruited the shy one to act. She is particularly proud of the theatre’s history of providing opportunities to women artists, including directors and playwrights. Important aspects of her programming choices were the inclusion and reflection of Alaska’s diverse demographics as well as the playʼs social message. Under her spirited leadership and vision, Cyrano’s Theatre Company became an important incubator of Alaska’s theatrical talent and has been the original home of “Scared Scriptless”, “Arctic Entries”, and “Black Feather Poets”, among others. The company’s ability over the years to successfully mount a different play nearly every month of the year is solid proof of the multiple training opportunities this small theatre company with little money has provided to the immediate community and the state overall.  Cyranoʼs has also taken several productions to underserved areas of the state, such as Homer, Seward, Yakutat and Kodiak.  Cyrano’s Theatre Company is an active participant in the annual Valdez Last Frontier Conference, frequently presenting new works at this nationally famous, important theatre conference. Harperʼs insistence that all productions, wherever performed, meet a high professional standard has set the bar for quality productions throughout the state.  In addition to the various formal positions Harper has held in Cyranoʼs Theatre Company, she is best known in the community as a cultural entrepreneur and collaborator. These traits, talents and skills were perhaps inherited, in part, from her parents, particularly her mother. Harper believes strongly in partnering and collaboration. By its very nature, theatre depends on collaboration and awarenessbetween the playwright and actor, between the actor and the audience, between the director and the actor. As a way to collaborate with the audience, Harper added contextual richness to the company’s productions by organizing lobby displays and special panels or talkback discussions. Collaboration with UAA’s theatre department over the years has provided graduates with their initial professional experience. In another example, she invited a number of prominent local citizens to partner with the company and play a role in the play when “Adam’s Rib” was produced in 2006. Believing that awareness of the arts must be part of public life, Harper made a point of joining and collaborating with various business, civic and nonprofit organizations. Her
direct civic involvement includes: former president, Anchorage Cultural Council; board member in Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Anchorage Downtown Association and Rasmuson Foundation; member, national board, Last Frontier Theatre Conference; creator and ten-year co-host, Alaska Radio Reader Rambler at public radio station KSKA. In addition to partnering with civic entities, Harper tried to coordinate theatre activities with municipal and state activities and celebrations. A prime example of her emphasis on the importance of civic engagement is the 2015 summer celebration of Anchorage’s centennial wherein  “Anchorage:The First 100 Years—A Theatrical Tour” was presented. This involved a new play being written and produced each week to highlight each of Anchorage’s first ten decades. In 2009, she commissioned five new works from Alaska writers to celebrate Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood while in 2011 she hosted a first-time reading of nine new plays from Alaska Native writers organized by the Alaska Native Heritage Center. As a cultural entrepreneur, she initiated and organized cultural events, always striving for collaboration with other artistic organizations and civic activities. For example, Harper saw a need in the cityʼs cultural life, created a coalition of booksellers, educators and libraries as “Partners in Literacy”, which resulted in the founding of the Alaska Center for the Book and the Reading and Writing Rendezvous. It was often her practice to invite a nonprofit organization whose social mission is aligned with a play’s theme to participate in the opening night and to give the evening’s proceeds to that organization.  For example, for “Pinkalicious!” the honored non-profit organization was Best Beginnings, which promotes early childhood literacy and love of books. Her numerous awards and honors demonstrate the communityʼs regard for her theatrical contributions, civic involvements, and recognition of her effectiveness as an advocate for the arts. They include: Governor’s Award for the Arts to the Cyrano Theatre Company for outstanding arts organization, 1975; “Contribution to Literacy in Alaska” award to Sandy Harper as founder of Alaska Center for the Book, 2002; Harper Performing Arts Touring Fund, initiated by Rasmuson Foundation, in recognition “of the contributions made by both Jerry and Sandy Harper to Alaska’s quality of life, both as artists and long time Rasmuson Foundation Board members”, 2005; Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding Arts Organization to Eccentric Theater Company (now Cyrano’s Theatre Company, 2005; YWCA Woman of Achievement award 2005; ATHENA Society inductee, 2009; Soroptimist Award for encouragement of women in the arts, 2010; Alaska State Legislative Citation honoring Cyrano’s Off-Center Payhouse, “a standing ovation” to Jerry and Sandy Harper “for their influence and consistent quality of state theatre that has made a lasting impression on the statewide progress of the performing arts culture”,2011; Lorene Harrison Award (Special Lifetime Achievement Award) Anchorage Cultural Council, 2011; UAA, Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, “In recognition of a lifetime of fostering the arts in Alaska”, 2011; and, the 2016 Governorʼs Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities to Cyranoʼs Theatre Company. While husband Jerry was a gifted actor and director and performed many roles, Harper preferred to operate behind the scenes, creating the opportunities and environment for events to come together. As Producing Artistic Director over many years, she selected
the plays to be produced, appointed the directors, chose the actors and commissioned new works. Harper frequently described her role in this phrase: “I throw the party.” According to a long-time colleague of Harperʼs, her outstanding talent as a producer was her ability to create a team for each play, from the director to the set designer, which led to successful productions. Another admirer credits her success to Harperʼs having a “great vision” for theatre and a “steady hand” on its production. Harperʼs theatrical training, combined with her interests in human awareness, consciousness and creativity provided a very natural and successful foundation for her career in the theatre. When asked to judge her own accomplishments, Harper pointed to three: co-founding the bookstore and theatre; creating the Alaska Center for the Book and working with her life partner on something they both loved. And, on a different level of accomplishment, she is proud of having raised a daughter and being a grandmother to two grandchildren. Her advice to young women about achieving goals echos her own experience: have the courage to try, keep your focus and be persistent in facing and overcoming the inevitable obstacles that will spring up. Through her personal efforts, Harper has demonstrated what a strong, determined woman with a clear vision can build and accomplish. After twenty-three years of producing a different play almost every month of the year, in 2015, management of Cyranoʼs Theatre Company initiated a shift from a “founders” board to a “governing” board, effective in 2016. Harper relinquished her direct role in the workings of Cyranoʼs Theatre Company, but It is a certainty that she will continue to be engaged in the artistic and theatrical cultures of Anchorage and Alaska.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech

Porco, Peter. Sandy Harper Northern Lights. American Theatre Magazine. March 2011, p. 40-44.
Stadem, Catherine and Strohmeyer, John. The History of Theatre in Anchorage, Alaska 1915-2005: From a Wilderness Tent to a Multi-Million Dollar Stage. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009. AK Alaska Public Media Lit Site Alaska$ Anchorage Press$


Prior to founding Cyrano’s Theatre Company, Sandy and her husband Jerry Harper created Cyrano’s Bookstore and Cafe featuring everything from music to cinema to special events. In 1992 they built Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse and co-founded its resident theater company. Its mission was not only to produce cutting edge, classic, contemporary and original plays, but to provide the opportunity for Alaska theater artists to participate in professional theater and practice their craft, whether actor, playwright, director or technician. As producing artistic director, Harper chose the plays, selected and nurtured the artists and commissioned new work. Under her spirited leadership and vision, CTC established itself as a vibrant presence in the life of downtown Anchorage and an important incubator of Alaska’s theatrical talent with a strong focus on women and Native cultures.

Harper believes that awareness of the arts must be part of public life and actively joined, served and collaborated with various businesses, civic and non-profit organizations from the Anchorage Downtown Association to the national board for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. Where possible, she coordinated theater activities with municipal events such as commissioning new plays to complement Anchorage’s centennial celebration. As a cultural entrepreneur, she initiated and organized cultural activities such as the founding of the Alaska Center for the Book.

Her numerous honors and awards recognize her contributions to and her effectiveness as an advocate of the arts. Examples include: Governor’s Award for the Arts; the 2016 Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities; UAA’s Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts; YWCA Woman of Achievement; Anchorage Cultural Council; Alaska State Legislative Citation, and Mayor’s Arts Award.

Harper earned a bachelor’s degree from Immaculate Heart College in L.A. and a master’s degree in Human Development from Pacific Oaks in Pasadena, Calif. Harper is a risk-taker who demonstrates what determination and a clear vision can build and accomplish.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech