Stage • Institute's theater program gaining reputation for helping to develop edgy plays.
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Robert Redford's Sundance Institute has gained worldwide recognition for helping bring risky, creative and boundary-pushing films into the mainstream through its star-studded annual film festival that is set to kick off again next month in Utah.
Now, the institute's lesser-known theater program is also cementing its reputation for helping develop celebrated plays and musicals in the same avant-garde mold of the film festival.
The 11 plays in theaters this year that were nurtured and polished during Sundance theater workshops are more than ever before. They explore territory that mainstream plays often shy away from.
They include the critically acclaimed "Fun Home," a musical based on a lesbian comic book about a gay dad's suicide, at The Public Theater in New York City; "Appropriate," a play heading to New York, about adult children who discover chilling photos of lynchings at their late father's Southern plantation; and the Broadway show "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder," a musical comedy about a British man who murders the eight heirs who stand between him and a family fortune.
Sundance's growing influence on theater comes after two decades of gradually increasing the number of labs and workshops it holds each year and broadening its search for the next great, risk-taking playwright.
Through its five workshops and labs, including the main three-week summer program in the mountains of northern Utah, the program creates a collaborative, noncompetitive environment that unleashes the creativity needed to make memorable plays, say participants and theater directors.
One key to that: The Sundance Theater Program only develops the works, meaning participants aren't competing against each other to earn the financial backing of the institute for production credits. Sundance focuses only on helping playwrights and directors finish, fine-tune and polish plays and musicals, leaving it to professional theaters to pick up the works for production.
Theaters are attracted to theater pieces that have gone through Sundance workshops because they represent the spirit of adventure and experimentation the program encourages, said Oskar Eustis, a past participant in the workshops and artistic director of The Public Theater, where "Fun Home" is playing.
"There is genuine artistic exploration," said Eustis. "Even if there are shows that end up being commercially successful, they weren't shows that were designed to be commercially successful. They were designed to tell the truth of an artist's experience."
The program's artistic director, Philip Himberg, said he and his staff read 800-900 plays submitted each year from around the country before selecting seven or eight people for their summer workshop in Utah.
They have scouts watching local theater around the country in search of plays and playwrights that represent the geographic, gender, racial and social prisms of the American landscape, he said. Last summer's participants ranged from young novice playwrights to well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights.
"What keeps me up at night, what makes me anxious, is that someone else is going to discover a playwright before I do," said Himberg, who took over the program in 1996.
At the workshop, paid for by private grants, playwrights alternate days writing with days rehearsing with theater actors.
That jambalaya of playwrights and plays fosters an environment that promotes experimentation and boundary-pushing and erases fear of failure, said director Liesl Tommy, who has taken three plays to the Sundance summer lab.
"You are part of a really exciting group of artists making really extraordinary theater," Tommy said. "That inspires you."
Tommy has taken three plays to the Sundance summer lab, and each has made it into production. She's currently the director of "Appropriate," written by fellow Sundance alum Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. It has recently played at theaters in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Louisville and is set to begin playing at the Signature Theater Company in New York in February.
The setting of the summer workshop in the serene Utah mountains in Sundance, far away from the bustling cities and stressful lives many of the playwrights come from helps playwrights work through the creative process, said Jacobs-Jenkins, from Washington, D.C. He rode the ski lift every day between rehearsals.
"They remove you from everything in your life that can distract you," said Jacobs-Jenkins. "They've got all the ingredients right to make work the easiest and most enjoyable thing to be doing.
In addition to the summer lab at the Sundance Resort, the program runs a playwrights retreat in Wyoming; a theater lab in the mountains of Massachusetts that focuses on musical and ensemble work; a rotating international workshop that is currently in East Africa; and a directors retreat in France.
The theater program has been around since Redford founded the institute in 1981 but it's really grown since Himberg took over in the mid-1990s, Eustis said.
"Its influence has continued to spread," Eustis said. "Phillip has really, really excellent taste."
The program has supported 700 artists since its inception in 1981, and nine out of 10 plays that come through the workshops make it into production, the institute reports. The plays have been awarded 20 Tony Awards.
One of the most well-known plays, and one that certainly showcases the offbeat material the program strives to develop, is "I Am My Own Wife," a one-person play written by Doug Wright about the life of a German transvestite woman who lives through the Nazi regime. It won two Tony Awards in 2004.
With no public performances and the labs closed to outsiders, Himberg knows his program will likely continue to operate in the shadow of its famous film festival cohort. But he's happy that more people are taking notice as more of the plays that come through make headlines in the theater world.
His philosophy moving forward remains the same: Diligently keep looking for playwriting talent no matter where it lies in America, and even the world.
"It's really just the best writing; what leaps off the page and feels compelling, poignant, unique to me," Himberg said. "It's those people with vision and reach that are interesting to me."