Sundance Institute's Theatre Lab Steps Into the Spotlight

Sundance Institute's Theatre Lab Steps Into the Spotlight To most people, the word "Sundance" means movies. That will probably continue to be the case as long as the profile of Robert Redford's Utah-based film festival grows with each passing year.
Tanya Barfield at the 2006 Sundance Theatre Lab.
Tanya Barfield at the 2006 Sundance Theatre Lab. Photo by Fred Hayes

The folks who track the January motion picture event for the next indy sensations might be surprised, then, to discover that the film festival is the younger sibling to a much-less-well-known arm of the Sundance Institute: the Theatre Laboratory.

"When the Institute celebrated its 26th anniversary, the truth is we were celebrating our 27th lab," revealed Philip Himberg, who for 11 years has been the producing artistic director of the theatre program.

Though the Theatre Lab predates the film festival, it is only in the past five years or so that it has commanded widespread attention in the theatre community. This is due to the surprising number of Lab projects that have gone on to large-scale commercial and critical success. Sundance-nurtured shows currently on Broadway include the two most highly praised musicals of the season: Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens. Tony-winners The Light in the Piazza and I Am My Own Wife were developed there, as was the praised Lisa Kron play Well. Off-Broadway Sundance graduates include Blue Door by Tanya Barfield, Crowns by Regina Taylor, The Tricky Part by Martin Moran, 36 Views by Naomi Iizuka and BFF by Anna Ziegler.

Himberg, as much as anyone else, has been surprised by the widespread success. "I can't say that any one of the plays were ones we thought would be commercial properties," he said.

One thing that shows like Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening and I Am My Own Wife share is an unusual point of view and untraditional subject matter. This is a hallmark of the Lab, Himberg said. "It's about finding those artists who take risks. It's the only play development program that has no public performance at the end of the workshop. There is none of that pressure at the end: 'Oh my God, producers are coming.' It's very much about the process until the very last moment."

Doug Wright, the playwright-librettist behind both Wife and Gardens, who is now an artistic advisor to Sundance, agrees: "First and foremost, they've perfected the art of encouraging artists to fulfill their own idiosyncratic vision, instead of crafting works for the marketplace."

Playwright Tanya Barfield, who has worked at both the Theatre Lab and Ucross, added, "I've found that it can really influence the writing when a play is for a public presentation. Sundance is for the plays that are not ready to be seen publicly."

Wright has taken part in all three of Sundance's theatre programs: the Theatre Lab, which takes place for three weeks every July in Utah; the seven-year-old Ucross writers colony, which lasts for two weeks every February in Wyoming; and the five-year-old White Oak Theatre Lab in Florida, which accepts two labor-intensive projects for two weeks each December.

Philip Himberg, Producing Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program.
photo by Fred Hayes

Both Ucross and White Oak were initiated by Himberg. Regarding Ucross, he explained, "Writers said to me, 'Sometimes I have plays that aren't ready for actors, but I'd love a place to go and just work, away from where I live.' Ucross has a year-long program. But they had a hard time attracting theatre writers." By teaming up, Sundance and Ucross fulfilled each other's needs. Writers who have used Ucross' studios include Ellen McLaughlin, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Peter Foley and Adam Bock. White Oak, meanwhile, is reserved mainly for musicals and ensemble projects. "Those kind of projects sometimes want a different kind of schedule because they want to work daily instead of every other day," as is the practice at the Theatre Lab, said Himberg. "Obviously, musicals have so much music to learn. And ensembles that are creating a work together, like The Civilians or Mabou Mines, those kind of companies like to work every day." Grey Gardens was developed at White Oak, as was the new musical The Women of Brewster Place. A resident at the most recent White Oak lab, the Brewster Place musical was recently announced for productions at the Alliance Theatre and Arena Stage.

This was Brewster composer-lyricist Tim Acito's first visit to a Sundance program and he said it was immeasurably helpful to him. "Around the clock I was writing new songs, rewriting old songs, reworking book scenes. After the couple of days in rehearsal, I spent most of my days sequestered…. At the end of it all, at the final presentation, we felt we were able to see our approach as well as it could have been. We also realized we probably had to cut the first 20 minutes of the show and the first act needed to be restructured."

Each final presentation at Sundance is attended by one or more of the Institute's artistic advisors. Doug Wright attended the reading of The Women of Brewster Place. (Other advisors have included Gordon Davison, Oskar Eustis and Molly Smith.) Afterwards he and the creators met in a closed-door session. However, he cautioned, the meeting was nothing like a lecture, in which the observer lists his criticisms and the writers sit and listen. "That would be so destructive," said Wright. "The meetings are guided by the writer. They ask us about things that concern them, and the advisors answers specific questions." Thus, the writer's vision of the piece is better preserved.

Cross-fertilization often occurs between the three programs. Piazza was begun in Ucross. The next year it was at the Theatre Lab.

Sundance is a year-round job for Himberg, and, despite the Utah, Wyoming and Florida locations of the three programs, he spends most of his time in the Institute's Los Angeles offices, where he sorts through the 700 to 800 applications Sundance gets every year. Though the theatre program is already a large one, Himberg wants to increase its size. "One of our goals in the future is to become a year-round resource for playwrights," he said. "I have a feeling it will in the future probably find another venue outside of L.A. to sponsor a playwriting lab." The new lab's purpose would be pre-production polishing of stage-ready show. "Some plays leave Sundance really needing another ten days before they go into production. So many regional theatres really don't have budgets for that sort of thing." He expects to announce Sundance's new venue in the next 12 months.

For more information, visit www.sundance.org.

(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at rsimonson@playbill.com.)

Christine Ebersole &amp; John McMartin workshopped <i>Grey Gardens</i> at White Oak in 2005
Christine Ebersole & John McMartin workshopped Grey Gardens at White Oak in 2005 Photo by William Biddy