The Air Up There: Utah's Sundance Lab Offers Playwrights Mountain Seclusion to Test New Works

News   The Air Up There: Utah's Sundance Lab Offers Playwrights Mountain Seclusion to Test New Works The playwrights, actors and directors invited into the 2002 Sundance Theatre Lab in Sundance, UT, arrived in the mountains July 8 to begin the unique process of rehearsing and rethinking still-forming plays and musicals "without the pressure of production."

The playwrights, actors and directors invited into the 2002 Sundance Theatre Lab in Sundance, UT, arrived in the mountains July 8 to begin the unique process of rehearsing and rethinking still-forming plays and musicals "without the pressure of production."

The lab, running July 8-28, includes seven new works that, given the track record of the not-for-profit program, will likely go on to regional productions and national attention. Robert Blacker, artistic director of the lab, told Playbill On-Line the not-for-profit program is "not cliquish, but it is competitive." Hundreds of scripts are submitted every year (more than 500 for the summer of 2002), and not just by established and agented writers. Any playwright can submit scripts (see the Sundance website for details). Blacker and Sundance Theatre artistic director Philip Himberg narrow the many submissions to seven shows, this year representing both the known (Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas and their The Light in the Piazza musical) and the unknown (Bel Canto, by Boston-based playwright and director Daniel Alexander Jones).

Almost three weeks of rehearsals and development lead up to private presentations July 24-28 this year. Blacker told Playbill On-Line the nature of the readings is dictated by the artists — part or all of the script may be read, or there may be a decision not to do a reading.

Who attends the readings? The artists, the creators, Sundance staffers and any producers who may have been previously attached to the works, say Blacker and Himberg.

"We're not a marketplace," Himberg told Playbill On-Line. "Unless you're connected with a play because you've commissioned it, or you're going to be producing it for sure the next season, you're not welcome." The atmosphere in the mountains may be thin, but it's also heady — actors rehearse every other day to allow writers time to rewrite. Evenings are spent socializing (or writing) and playwrights and casts often interact in the spirit of creative bonding.

The 2002 acting company includes Omid Abtahi, Celia Keenan Bolger (Summer of '42), Maureen Brennan, Colby Chambers, Ivonne Coll, Leslie Elliard, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Harriet D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Mary Cleere Haran (the respected cabaret singer), Mark Harelik (an actor who is also a playwright known for The Immigrant), Walter Hudson, Ebony Jo-Ann, Oni Faida Lampley, Tamara Mello, Burl Moseley, Kelli O'Hara (Sweet Smell of Success), John Ortiz, Marison Padilla, Steven Pasquale (The Spitfire Grill), Gary Perez, Brenda Pressley, Jimonn Cole and Tom Zemon.

The 2002 Theatre Lab is dedicated to the memory of Lab alumni Carrie Hamilton, who died in January. Her play, Hollywood Arms, written in collaboration with her mother, Carol Burnett, was developed at the 1998 Sundance Lab and will open on Broadway in the fall (following a run earlier this year at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago). Hollywood Arms is one of eight projects from previous Sundance Labs to open this season at theatres across the country, according to Blacker. Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has been making the rounds of regional theatre and will play Manhattan Theatre Club in the fall. It has its roots in Sundance.

As previously announced, the seven projects for the 2002 Sundance Theatre Lab are:

  • The Light in the Piazza, a musical with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, adapted from a novella in which an American woman watches in dismay as her daughter falls in love with a handsome Florentine. Guettel's musical, Floyd Collins, has been produced at theaters throughout the country and in New York at Playwrights Horizons. Playwright Lucas, who directs the piece, is known for The Dying Gaul, Prelude to a Kiss and Stranger. Ted Sperling is musical director. Cast: Celia Keenan-Bolger, Maureen Brennan, Mary Cleere Haran, Mark Harelik, Walter Hudson, Steven Pasquale, Tom Zemon.
  • Crowns, by Regina Taylor, adapted from a book of photos and interviews by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. It uses monologues and gospel music to tell the stories of a group of African-American women and the hats they wear to church. Choreographer Ronald Brown and composer Darryl Waters collaborate with Taylor, whose play, Oobla-Dee was previously developed at Sundance and went on to win a best-play award from the American Theatre Critics Association. Cast: Leslie Elliard, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Harriet D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Ebony Jo-Ann, Oni Faida Lampley, Brenda Pressley.
  • Adoration of the Old Woman, by Jose Rivera, follows a troubled, young Latina from her home in New Jersey to her dying great-grandmother in Puerto Rico. There, she falls in love with a revolutionary, as the vote for island independence creates political discord and her great-grandmother is haunted by the ghost of her husband's lover. Rivera is the author of many plays, most recently the Obie award-winning References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot at the Public Theater. Jo Bonney directs Adoration. Cast: Ivonne Coll, Tamara Mello, John Ortiz, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Gary Perez.
  • The Paradise Project, by the Obie-award winning John Kelly, is a theatrical meditation on the 1945 French cult classic, "Children of Paradise." Composer Michael Torke and lyricist Mark Campbell provide songs for a piece that will include mime, video, and trapeze work. Kelly plays a contemporary "Everyman" who projects himself into the film and its central character, "Baptiste," immortalized in the movie by Jean-Louis Barrault. Cast: Colby Chambers, Kelli O'Hara, Brenda Pressley, Tom Zemon.
  • Fraulein Else, written by actress Francesca Faridany and directed by Stephen Wadsworth, is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1924 novella, in which a young woman, vacationing with wealthy cousins in Italy, becomes the victim of family and financial pressures she cannot control. Wadsworth has directed at theatres at such theatres as McCarter, Berkeley Rep and Seattle Rep, in his hometown. Faridany performs the title role, which combines interior monologue with conversations. Cast: Omid Abtahi, Ivonne Coll, Mark Harelik, Steven Pasquale.
  • An untitled solo piece from San Francisco writer-performer Josh Kornbluth focuses on the US tax system, romance and a surprising twist in the author's life that impacts his understanding of the law. As with his other monologues, the work will be developed in part through improvisation. His other theatre pieces include, Red Diaper Baby, nominated for a Drama Desk award, and Haiku Tunnel, made into a film that debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. David Dower directs.
  • Bel Canto, by Boston-based playwright and director Daniel Alexander Jones, is a new play about an African American teenager who discovers both the world of classical opera and his homosexuality. The characters include the ghost of famed contralto, Marian Andersen. Obie award-winner Robbie McCauley directs. Jones' plays include Cab and Lena, produced at Boston's Theatre Offensive, and The Blackbird Cipher at the Frontera Theatre in Austin. Cast: Maureen Brennan, Jimonn Cole, Lynda Gravatt, Ebony Jo-Ann, Ona Faida Lampley, Burl Moseley.

The Sundance Theatre is a not-for-profit arts organization founded by Robert Redford, as an offshoot of the Sundance Institute, which is best known for its independent film festival and indy film development. *
The creative advisers for this year's lab include Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse; Molly Smith, artistic director of Washington DC's Arena Stage; and dramaturgs Elissa Adams, Jocelyn Clarke and Kim Euell. Meg Simon is casting advisor for the Lab.

For information about The Sundance Theatre Laboratory, visit www.sundance.org.

— By Kenneth Jones