"The Magic of Sundance": Behind the Scenes at the Sundance Theatre Lab

By Christopher Chen
22 Jul 2014

Christopher Chen
Christopher Chen

In the second 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.

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Yesterday we had a rehearsal where we got hung up on a scene. It's a crucial scene right at the end of the play that is meant to suddenly reveal a vulnerable, human dimension to what is otherwise a very mind-driven play.

We worked through the scene methodically, eventually coming to the final beat. Somehow, we couldn't get it to work. We eventually narrowed the issue down to a single character's sequence of lines within this "problem" beat.

The issue at hand was a demanding dramatic proposition: In the course of only a half page of dialogue, a character must forgive another character not in the scene; then, fueled by this moment of compassion, offer an olive branch to a third character within the scene. For me, this quick, jagged one-two punch of epiphanies felt sound. For the team, the suddenness of the leaps felt unnatural as written. In truth, there was something about the phrasing that didn't seem quite right to me either, so we gave ourselves permission to dig into the discrepancy.

We had an extended conversation about the needs of the scene on the character level versus the needs of the scene within the play as a whole. We talked through how these needs might or might not be reconciled. In the end, we didn't have a solid solution, but through our excavations, I felt I had a clear handle on the job ahead.

It was a productive and intense experience. I came out reeling. I felt immense gratitude for having wrestled with my work with fellow colleagues who brought differences of perspective to the table with absolute commitment, passion and respect. I also felt unsettled, since fleshing out differences of perspective can be scary. And even though they were just a few lines, those lines contained the core of the play and its characters.

But then — and this is the magic of Sundance — we had drinks after and kept talking, clarifying thoughts we had trouble articulating in the room. Then we had dinner together, and didn't talk about the play at all. Then there were card games. Then, the next morning, I talked more with my director — with whom I share a house — over coffee on our front porch. I articulated some stylistic impulses in the scene I wasn't fully aware of until then, after a good night's sleep. And now we have a deeper shared understanding of the scene than ever before.

We had dug into the play. We opened it up, interrogated it. We worked on it. The commitment from my team was humbling. It helped remind me that for us theatre artists, who have made a commitment to this craft as a life endeavor, it is truly all about the work.