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Theatre lab forces fest to go legit

Sundance takes children productions to schools

Schizophrenia isn’t pretty in people, but it seems to be working just fine for the Sundance Theatre Program.

Come this summer beneath Mt. Timpanogos, the 1,000-seat Eccles Stage amphitheater will be home to 50 performances of “Fiddler on the Roof”; the 250-seat King Stage offers a children’s theater production of “The Little Prince”; while nearby at the Sundance Theatre Laboratory eight playwrights, eight directors, four dramaturgs, three dozen actors and a few choreographers will create cutting-edge drama that audiences may or may not ever see.

“Fiddler on the Roof” and children’s theater at Sundance?

“You do know the program is two-pronged,” explains Sundance theater producing director Philip Himberg,

The Sundance Theatre Lab, under the tutelage of Himberg and co-artistic director Robert Blacker, is renowned in the legit world for having provided workshops for a variety of playwrights, including Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), Robert Schenkkan (“The Kentucky Cycle”), Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”), Julie Taymor (“Liberties Taken”) and Donald Margulies (“Sight Unseen”).

Surprisingly, Sundance’s commitment to traditional Broadway musicals and children’s theater goes back much further, to when Robert Redford first bought the Sundance resort in 1969 and began offering works such as “The Sound of Music” the very next year.

“The Theatre Laboratory is a national program,” says Himberg. “It really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with theater in Utah, except it is there and supported by Sundance. Children’s theater and the musicals are very much a Utah program. It’s about selling 50,000 tickets during the summer at a resort.”

With a $750,000 operating budget, Himberg and Sundance theater general manager Aaron Young will stage a professional production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” employing five Actors Equity thesps and a professional New York legit production team. The musicals have slowly evolved over the years from community-theater based, to summer stock, to the full professional productions now on view.

More adventurous in programming is the children’s theater, budgeted at between $60,000-$70,000. “The Little Prince” will be performed this summer. In 1997, Charles Ludlam’s “The Enchanted Pig” was staged. And last year, director Roger Benington took an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” out of the theater and into the wilds of Utah.

“The children followed the actors through the forest,” Young recalls. “Most children’s theater is too didactic, and we want to create the awe and wonder of theater without having to beat you over the head with a message.”

For an additional $80,000, Sundance takes its children’s productions to more than 100 elementary schools throughout the state each fall.

As for the program’s tie-in with the film festival, two one-person shows will be staged during the event at the Eccles Center: Charlayne Woodard’s “In Real Life,” which was developed at the Sundance Theatre Lab, on Jan. 24; and Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” on Jan 28.

Beyond Utah, the Sundance Theatre Program will always mean the lab. Plays developed here have gone on to receive notable productions at such august institutions as the Kennedy Center, Goodman Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club and Mark Taper Forum, among many others.

Three years ago, when Himberg came aboard as artistic director, the program got a face-lift, changing its name from the Sundance Playwrights Laboratory to the Sundance Theatre Laboratory. The one-word change was significant. “We had a conversation with Redford about the new development of new plays,” Himberg recalls, “and we all agreed that, while the cornerstone of any play is the writer, there were some works in theater being developed by the director. So we opted to open the lab up to playwrights as well as directors.”

Last November, Sundance and the Ucross Foundation of Wyoming announced a collaborative pilot project, a playwrights’ retreat, that each February will offer residency to approximately seven writers and composers. “The Ucross residency provides another kind of support for writers who are at a different and earlier stage of creating a new play,” says Himberg.

And so the lab, with its $225,000 annual budget, now focuses on plays that are ready to be staged or, at least, be performed with actors. During the three-week program in July, writers work with a director, a dramaturge and a number of actors. Beyond those elements, the workshops are purposefully loose in structure. “You can’t create a mechanism by which a play should be developed,” explains Himberg. “We sit with the creative team to find out their objectives. Whatever they want they get. It is driven by the project.”

Writer Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss,” “Longtime Companion”) switched hats to direct David Schulner’s play-in-progress “Isaac,” based on the Book of Genesis.

“One of the amazing innovations at Sundance is that you work with the actors one day and then you take a day off in which the writer and the director have time to catch their breath, think about what they’ve done and make changes,” says Lucas. “I’ve done a lot of play development at regional theaters, and they don’t have the time and money to let you hear the play, take a day off, hear the play, take a day off — for three weeks!”

Moises Kaufman (“Gross Indecency”) developed his second play, “The Laramie Project,” at Sundance last summer. The playwright, who is a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project, also mentions the lab’s liberal approach to workshopping.

“I’ve been in a zillion residences of this type, and what was helpful is that they are malleable at Sundance,” says Kaufman. “They took the entire 13-member Tectonic Theatre Project up to Sundance! Second, the calibre of people working there is very high. I had this very romantic idea of the Group Theater when they used to go off to the mountains to do their work. Sundance has something of that.”

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