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Sundance Institute's annual theater lab going downhill -- elevationally speaking

February 11, 2010 |  4:30 pm

SundanceTheatreLabChun
Talk about coming down in the world.

The Sundance Theatre Lab, long ensconced 6,200 feet above sea level at Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in the Rocky Mountains, will descend in March to the Berkshire Mountains community of North Adams, Mass. — elevation 700 feet. And come June, it will be dipping its toes at Governors Island in New York Harbor.

The reason: Redford is building a conference center at his mountainside digs in Utah. Rather than dance around “a big hole in the ground,” Philip Himberg, producing artistic director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, decided 2010 would be a year of excursions for the idyllic annual summer theater camp with the serious purpose of developing new plays and musicals.

At the theater lab, actors, directors and playwrights gather for three weeks of communal living while working on never-produced scripts. Plans call for resuming the customary Rocky Mountain high in 2011.

Meanwhile, the work will go on amid the rolling hills of northwestern Massachusetts and in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

Himberg said he and his staff expected applications to drop because of the change of venues to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and Governors Island, a former military installation that’s now used for recreation and cultural events. But play submissions totaled 650 for fewer than 10 slots  — up from the usual 500 to 600.

MassMoCA The scripts to be worked on at MASS MoCA, where Sundance Institute associate Rachel Chanoff curates the performing arts and film programs, are “Out of Orbit,” by L.A. playwright Jennifer Maisel, “Bwagamoyo” by Shailja Patel, “A Small Fire” by Adam Bock and “The Escape Artist” by John Kelly. The troupe of artists and advisors will get the communal experience by staying at a single local inn.

The Governors Island contingent will commute by ferry each day and tackle plays by Jason Grote, Laura Jacqmin, Harrison Rivers and Sunil Kuruvilla, a Canadian playwright whose script is a commission from South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Also planned this year, as part of a separate five-year initiative to develop plays by African writers, is Sundance's first full-scale theater lab in Africa, where thespians from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda will work on plays on Manda Island, off the coast of Kenya.

While the Sundance Institute’s executive offices remain in Los Angeles, Himberg and the theater program moved to New York City about a year ago to allow more face-time with the dominant New York stage scene. Himberg said he still gets to check out L.A. plays every month or two when he’s back in town for senior staff meetings.

Among the works that have gone up Redford’s mountain in a transitional or germinal state and come back down having gotten a boost toward eventual success are the musicals “Spring Awakening,” “The Light in the Piazza” and “Passing Strange,” and dramas “The Laramie Project” and “I Am My Own Wife.”

-- Mike Boehm

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Photos: This building at Robert Redford's Sundance Resort in Utah becomes a rehearsal hall during the annual Sundance Theatre Lab. Due to construction, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in a renovated factory building in North Adams, will host part of this year's Sundance play development program. Credits: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times (Utah); Nicolas Whitman (MASS MoCA).


 
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