Slowing Down to Get Caught Up: Behind the Scenes at the Sundance Theatre Lab

By Christopher Chen
15 Jul 2014

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



*

In my first week at the Sundance Theatre Lab, my main impression is that it is luxurious. I don't mean decadent, although the accommodations and food are amazing. It's luxurious in that we're working within the luxury of nature. In the mornings I listen to bird songs on the porch; we rehearse in cabins surrounded by streams and trees. But it also offers another luxury: time, and the mental space this brings.

What's exciting for me about Sundance is the luxury I have in taking the time to explore my play Caught — about a Chinese dissident artist, among other things — in a deep way. I wrote the first draft relatively quickly and did not make many major revisions beyond my first stab. I write fast because I have a lot of nervous energy. I feel I need to get things done. I multi-task with multiple projects. I have a day job. I have the overall business of life to attend to. This has to affect the art, even while art should open up states of mind beyond the mundane.

For me, writing fast drafts is a heady combination of inspiration and overconfidence. While it's thrilling to reach the end quickly, speed also causes things to calcify at an early stage. Even though I knew there was work to be done, something about the initial draft felt immovable in my mind. I couldn't identify the next steps. Speed led to a roadblock.

Here, I feel my process slowing down and expanding. We have three weeks of development time, with alternating workshop days and private writing days. In our first week I am not doing any rewriting. I am observing my director and actors do intensive scene work on the untouched draft. By week's end, I'll get to have experienced the best possible realization of this version before jumping into rewrites. This is a luxury.

One major breakthrough for me was a clarity of relationship. The play has a Russian-doll-like structure. It is fragmented and episodic, with new characters introduced on a scene by scene basis. An open question going in was: What can the audience hold on to? What's the through-line?

Through a conversation with my director, Mark Brokaw, it hit me that there was an intimate relationship in the play. The relationship between the play itself and the audience. This is a given for any play, but for Caught's structural experiment it was an important dynamic to clarify. As the play twists and turns, how is it treating the audience? When is it being coy? Generous? Manipulative? Sincere? It was a simple but profound lightbulb moment that opened up a whole new language and perspective for tackling the work; as simple and profound as the act of making art in the wilderness.