Monday, August 6, 2007

New plays incubate at Sundance

Playwrights, directors and actors find a fertile creative environment in a setting far from the Broadway stage at the Sundance incubator

By Ellen Fagg

SUNDANCE - The song lyric is arresting: "God is not interested in your happiness."

On this Wednesday morning, Michael Friedman is at the piano in the barnlike rehearsal room of the Sundance Theatre Lab, teaching six actors his song "Freedom." The composer for the New-York based The Civilians theater company, Friedman is working on the score for "This Beautiful City," a play with music about the explosive power of evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Actors are looking over the fourth rewrite of the script, still something of a mess on day nine, the midway point of this exclusive three-week summer camp for playwrights.

"This beautiful pile of crap" is how Friedman jokingly describes the play before getting down to the business of explaining today's changes. "On the first 'God is not interested,' " the young composer tells a vocalist, "sing loud and sing ugly."

God is not interested in your happiness. Voices blend as a godhead of women follow that line with this: "So you have to learn to live without it." And then a trio of men sing: "Freedom is not so you can do what you want. The only freedom is the ability to do what you ought." The song builds until hitting a blunt, unsettling resolution: "It's a paradox."

"This Beautiful City" is one of eight ambitious, quirky projects at this year's lab, selected from more than 700 Sundance submissions. What's unusual about the reality-based work is that the lyrics for "Freedom" - like the play's dialogue and characters - grew out of interviews The Civilians conducted during an 11-week residency in Colorado Springs last fall.

The theater company's interest in exploring the emerging political power of the Christian right sparked the project, which became a partnership with Colorado College. "Our mission as a theater company is to pursue what we don't know," says Steve Cosson, The Civilians' founding artistic director. Friedman describes a moment when he was talking to Colorado Springs residents and realized he was at the crossroads of a sweeping cultural movement. "In New York, we are so unaware of how Colorado Springs is affecting us," the musician says with the insight of an anthropologist.

In a case of cosmic happenstance, the company happened to be attending the New Life megachurch on the November Sunday when minister Ted Haggard resigned amid allegations of a sexual relationship with a male escort. "When Ted Haggard got outed, our play got hit by a truck," says Cosson, one of the play's three writers.

While the play directly addresses the collision between homosexuality and Christianity, its themes are more broadly focused on the paradoxes of living in a place that some people consider God's kingdom.

"For me, not being a religious person," says Friedman, "that's the central question of the show: 'What will your personal freedom bring you?' "

Creative courtship: Listen to The Civilians or other theater artists talking about the Sundance lab, and it's as if they're talking about a creative courtship, where Sundance functions as a matchmaker, setting up emerging and established playwrights with a crew of actors and creative advisers.

Then through a dramatic ménage À trois among playwright, director and dramaturg, the creative aim is as simple as falling in love: You just have to be brave enough to create something new.

That kind of risk can be a challenge for artists in the current economic climate, as arts groups locally and nationally fight for economic survival.

Like a scientific laboratory, the lab hopes to provide a safe place for creative experiments. "Plays are not created in seven days," says Philip Himberg, Sundance's producing director. "Darwinism is the model. There's no such thing as spontaneous combustion. We try to understand the artist's process and establish the right environment."

That concept of nurturing new theatrical works has deep roots locally, thanks to the Utah Arts Council's ambitious launch of the state's first playwriting conference at the Sundance Resort in July 1980. The next year, Robert Redford adopted the fledgling program, which has expanded as the Sundance Institute evolved into an international brand name.

With an annual budget now approaching $1 million, Sundance theater programs have evolved into a year-round support group, with a playwriting retreat at northeastern Wyoming's Ucross foundation, and a lab for new musicals and ensemble works at White Oak, Fla. It's also expanding internationally, with two Nairobi artists attending this year's lab, and plans for a 10-day workshop to support local talent next year in Kampala, Uganda.

Despite the lab's nearly 30-year history, few theatergoers are aware of its national influence because Sundance doesn't produce plays. Recent examples of its graduates are two quirky Broadway musicals - "Spring Awakening" and "Grey Gardens" - that were the talk of this year's Tony Awards. Theater brand names nurtured by Sundance include epics such as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle."

Sundance also can claim Moisés Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," about the hate crime that took the life of Matthew Shepard, and "I Am My Own Wife," Doug Wright's unusual play about a charming, shape-shifting German transvestite. Both shows have been produced at regional theaters around the country, and drawn audiences when performed at Salt Lake City theater companies.

"What we're proud of is the audacity and independent spirit of those works," Himberg says. "We're not about producing hits. We're about sending work out into the country."

Yet the Sundance official, like nonprofit administrators worldwide, is quick to offer the numbers that quantify the lab's track record. So far, Himberg says, 85 percent of Sundance-incubated plays have gone on to full-scale productions at regional theaters, while 21 have received Tony nominations.

"American theater doesn't treat playwrights well," says Mame Hunt, the lab's lead dramaturg. "This is the place where they are at the center of the world.

A good start: "This Beautiful City's" creators arrived at Sundance with a rough outline, cobbled together from hours of interview transcripts. In that form, the project already had received national attention, thanks to staged readings earlier this year at Colorado College and in New York City, and a commitment for a world-premiere production next June at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre.

During the lab, the writers kicked out six new drafts for every-other-day rehearsals, and Friedman wrote three new songs. The play now features a dozen key characters based on real people. The work blends theatrical styles, including moments from interviews, direct-address monologues and naturalistic scenes. Most of the play's songs are structured with layers of voices and other elements juxtaposed against each other, to create what Casson describes as a "new and synergistic third voice."

In the cliff-hanger that ends the first act, audience members eavesdrop on conflicting witness accounts of Haggard's downfall. A dramatic highlight of the second act is "Take Me There," a song that draws upon the motifs of Christian pop, intercut with snippets of prayers and church speeches, to recount with dramatic urgency what happened inside the New Life Church the day Haggard was exposed.

With "This Beautiful City" and other interview-based works, the theater company aims to tell stories grounded in a particular time and place. They want to create theater, not journalistic reportage, not a didactic documentary or an op-ed piece. "We're trying to balance the story," Casson says. "Various people have their truth to tell, but this is a play being created by a secular theater company. Our actors perform and sing the Christian point of view. This is our show."

A show, that is, shaped at a place where playwrights are at the center of the creative universe. "Everything shifted around and moved and got juxtaposed next to other stuff," Cosson reported this week, after returning to his New York office. "The most helpful thing about Sundance was just having a fresh audience, and then getting responses from Sundance's creative advisers. We came in with a very, very rough draft, and now we have a pretty solid draft."

* ELLEN FAGG can be contacted at or 801-257-8621. Send comments to

Taking shape at Sundance
Besides "This Beautiful City," other plays in development at this year's Sundance Theatre Lab included:

* WORK: Noah Haidle's "Local Time 11AM-1PM."
Description: Inspired by TV's "24," but "without Kiefer Sutherland or terrorists," the play opens with two simultaneous stories performed on opposite sides of the stage that appear to have little in common.

* WORK: Ann Marie Healy's "Have You Seen Steve Steven?"
Description: Teen protagonist Kathleen's fairy-tale passage into adulthood devolves into "Twilight Zone"-esque terror.

* WORK: Danny Hoch's "A Word Is Born."
Description: "A musical prelude to rap culture, its generation and its word."

* WORK: Naomi Lizuka's "Ghostwritten."
Description: A retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fable, exploring the relationship between America and Southeast Asia and challenging the idea of what's foreign and what's familiar.

* WORK: Rob Grace and Bradford Louryk's "The Untitled Lucrezia Borgia Project."
Description: Multimedia one-man play illuminating "the multiplicity of our complex identities," based on a collection of Borgia's letters.

* WORK: Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Wig Out."
Description: A love story set in "drag ball houses" in contemporary Harlem, considering such concepts as fidelity and loyalty to self and family.

* WORK: Tracey Scott Wilson's "The Good Negro."
Description: Intimate stories offer a look inside the history of the American civil-rights movement.