A Closed/Open Experience: Behind the Scenes at the Sundance Theatre Lab

By Christopher Chen
29 Jul 2014

Christopher Chen
Christopher Chen

In the third installment of his weekly blog, Sundance Institute Theatre Lab fellow and playwright Christopher Chen offers insight into the creative process behind the lab, which ran through July 27 in Utah.

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As a writer, I'm always looking for neat little dichotomous word constructions by which to organize the world. One little dualism that pops into mind when thinking about my time at Sundance is: Closed/Open. The Sundance Theater Lab creates a "closed" community. We live, eat and interact only with the artists and crews involved with our projects for all of three weeks. Our presentations are closed to the public. And yet the purpose of being "closed" is to "open" up the work.

The Lab creates an open space for artistic risk. In our final presentations we saw a piece that, through a uniquely devised process, radically explored how we process time; another piece contained a dizzying musical cocktail of rap, song and soundscape; and for my presentation, my director orchestrated a brilliantly subversive bit of staging the day-of.

I think we operate out of primal fear much more than we admit. I sometimes catch myself making artistic choices based on fear. There is always that little voice in the back of my head, from the elementary school playground, saying that if I seem too different, I won't be liked; if I take artistic risks, then audiences won't like me, and that could be a problem.



It's hard to separate art from the business of art. And yet sometimes there is value in stepping back and isolating the two, without rejecting either. It is about clarity of intention on a moment to moment basis. At Sundance we worked in a closed community not to solipsistically indulge in art for ourselves, but to consciously set aside time to get the work right before sharing it with the world. I just heard this French phrase in an interview (I don't speak French, I had to Google it to get it right): reculer pour mieux sauter: to draw back in order to make a better jump. And I realize I'm mixing my metaphors now.

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A day before I left, as I was walking down a trail, I saw what I think was a bobcat, trotting across the road in front of me, a dead ground squirrel in its mouth. Ground squirrels had been our friendly little companions throughout the month, so this was a stark reminder that while making art within nature seems an unequivocally idyllic proposition, the nature we're working in is not fun and games. It is a serious place of life and death.

The plays I've witnessed at the Lab, while playful, buoyant, and full of life and vitality, were also all serious works. A theme running through the diverse body of works, both explicitly and non-explicitly, was spirituality. Each play wrestled seriously with the human spirit in the world. Each play had profound struggle at its core, struggle presented in ambitious and at times startling ways. I was truly humbled to have been able to witness these spiritual quests in their rawest, most open forms. Brace yourselves for when they hit the stage.