Playbill On-Line reporter David Lefkowitz is in Utah the week of July 13-20 visiting the Sundance Playwrights Lab and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. This is first of several reports.
In 1984, three years after Robert Redford founded the Feature Film Program at the idyllic Sundance Institute, 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 continues to evolve, with 1997 being a watershed year, signalled by a change in the program's very title; it's now called the Theatre Lab.
"We are always in transition here," Redford wrote in a letter welcoming the American Theatre Critics Association to a one-day tour of Sundance. "The emphasis is on process." Redford, shooting The Horse Whisperer, was unable to attend the ATCA gathering.
Philip Himberg, producing director of the Sundance Theatre Program, told the group that he came to the conclusion that, "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." Among the writers enduring self-flagellation at this year's gathering, July 2-20, are Dael Orlandersmith, working with director Peter Askin on a new work titled Race, and playwright Paul Selig, who's busy adapting the five monologues that comprise Mystery School into a one-woman show. Tyne Daly (Gypsy) came down to Sundance to help workshop that piece.
Selig said, "I did the piece in New York last year, with myself acting all the roles. It was such a revelation when Tyne came down and already knew the script and was ready to work."
Executive director Kenneth S. Brecher said, "We look for independent, thinking artists from countries around the world."
In a statement for the Sundance guidebook, Himberg 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."
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."
Other works in development at Sundance this year are Martha Clarke's "Narrative Project," Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters and Jaye Austin Williams, adapting the urban poetry of Sapphire [sic] for a piece called American Dreams. Israel Horovitz (The Primary English Class) will also come to Sundance to work on Stage Directions, a play that, as its title suggests, features all the characters actually saying their stage directions.
While in town, the ATCA critics got to see a half-hour excerpt of The Enchanted Pig, a children's play by the late Charles Ludlam, directed by noted conceptual artist and puppeteer, Theodora Skipitares. Even the jaded critics chuckled at the clever costumes, including one made of (edible) cabbage leaves, and constructions that allowed the human in the middle to control a puppet on either side.
Actors participating in this season's projects include Charlayne Woodard, Harold Perrineau, Novella Nelson and Marissa Chibas. Creative advisers for the Lab include Chiori Miyagawa, Marion McClinton, Des McAnuff, Emily Mann and Shirley Fishman.
Special guests invited to speak to the writers, directors and performers included Glenn Close, Carol Burnett and Colleen Cavanaugh (a marine biologist, brought in because (said Himberg), "unlike the filmmakers, who are basically one-track minded about coming here and getting their films done, theatre people are more open to sharing and exchanging ideas in the world outside theatre."
Burnett came to the ATCA gathering and told the assembled critics her advice to the Sundance participants was simple: "The audience is always right. And they'll tell you when you're wrong. Even when I did the TV show, we didn't play to the cameras, we played to the invited audience in the studio."
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