In 1984, three years after Robert Redford founded the Feature Film Program at the idyllic Sundance Institute in Utah, he developed a Playwrights Lab for emerging dramatists. For years, that progam flourished -- albeit in the shadow of the growing fame of the Film Program and Festival. The Playwrights Program continued to evolve, with 1997 being a watershed year, signaled by a change in the program's title, now called the Theatre Lab.
In a statement for the Sundance guidebook, Philip Himberg, producing director of the Sundance Theatre Program, wrote, "We want to experiment with the different stages of development. Some work necessitates only the reading of text; at other levels, work needs to `move through space,' to be staged. Still other kinds of projects demand a limited kind of `production,' with an invited audience."
To that end, this year's attendees will include Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott and McCarter Theatre artistic director Emily Mann (Having Our Say). Also taking part are playwrights Oliver Mayer and Nilo Cruz, directors Tazewell Thompson and Marion McClinton, and actress Carol Burnett, who also made a special appearance at Sundance the year before, in conjunction with the screening of the documentary Moon Over Broadway.
Last year's Sundance Theatre Lab also helped bring forth Paul Selig's Mystery School, which ended up with an Off-Broadway production starring Tyne Daly.
Executive director Kenneth S. Brecher says of the program, "We look for independent, thinking artists from countries around the world." "We are always in transition here," Redford wrote in a letter welcoming the American Theatre Critics Association to a one-day tour of Sundance in 1997. "The emphasis is on process."
Added producing director Himberg, "Play development is not just about writers. We want a multi-faceted program. The Theatre Lab came out of the Playwrights Lab and includes new ways to develop works. Sometimes writers come with a finished script, sometimes it's just an idea."
Beth Nathanson, Lab associate producer, said, "No one is as tough on a writer as the writer himself; we create a safe space for them to beat themselves up."
Himberg is being careful, however, not to let Sundance turn into a supermarket for producers eager to find product. "That's why we don't have performances of these works for a paying audience. Sometimes there'll just be readings, sometimes the playwright will invite people. Sometimes we'll have people from our summer musical [this year: The Music Man] come and attend." For Himberg, the idea is to find, "a renewed vocabulary for the developmental process."
The submission process for writers and artists hoping to take part in Sundance begins in late fall. Himberg says it's still a relatively open submission process (no agents necessary), although the Lab also approaches artists/directors who might make interest.
-- By David Lefkowitz