Philip Himberg is miffed. He is annoyed about a Facebook comment I posted, more a harmless remark about my overtired disposition than a critique of a play process at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab. Nevertheless, this posting, Himberg argues, “feels absolutely off for what we were discussing about Sundance creating a safe community.” Naturally, I quickly take the posting down, apologize and try to make amends. I make a mental note of how fiercely protective Himberg has become of the program he heads.
At Governors Island in New York Harbor, where Sundance conducted its Lab this past summer, Himberg is keyed up and wide-eyed, but also watchful, like a hawk. Although Sundance’s Theatre Program recently relocated its headquarters from Los Angeles to New York, Himberg, whose title is producing artistic director, says that the Lab feels a little out of its element here. This is the first season that this annual summer theatre camp, seriously devoted to new-work development, has taken place outside its natural abode in Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort on the lower slopes of 11,750-foot Mt. Timpanogos in Utah. This is also the first time the Lab has been cheek-by-jowl with the commercial precincts of New York City. “As I’m sure you can appreciate,” Himberg says, “the most vital part of my overseeing this Lab is keeping it protected, and I’ve been assuring the writers that they will never be exposed during their process—it’s counter to who we are.”
At present, Redford is building a conference center at his mountainside digs in Utah, so rather than consigning this season’s Lab participants to work around a big construction hole, Himberg decided that the Lab itself would temporarily relocate. New-play development has gone bus-and-truck, if you will. From late March to early April, a troupe of artists and advisors stayed at a single local inn in the rolling hills of northwestern Massachusetts while helping develop four projects-in-process at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). In June, a different contingent commuted by ferry each day in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty to gather in Governors Island’s Pershing Hall and to tackle four new works by Jason Grote, Laura Jacqmin, Harrison David Rivers and Sunil Kuruvilla. Both East Coast labs, Himberg hoped, would recreate the sort of connection with nature—an environment integral to nurturing the creative process, he believes—that is “a Sundance core value.”
As fast as the tension arises, it cools and dissipates. Sensitivities may have briefly gotten rubbed the wrong way, yet the mood eases into a new normal in which Himberg’s voice assumes a cozy confidentiality as he shares telling observations about the selected plays and about the trajectory of each as they progress.
“We have an amazing class of play readers—people we know, love and trust,” Himberg says. “The toughest part is winnowing the 30 semi-finalists to the end. I have to consider such things as balance, geography, genre diversity, the number of men versus women writers. Choosing those last seven or eight plays is very tricky. Something might literally grab me. I look for work that is very personal. I love language. I came away from reading Grote’s Civilization not really understanding it, but there are amazing ideas in that play, such as this ‘big hog’ character. Here’s a mind I want to be in the room with. The mother in Laura Jacqmin’s Look, We Are Breathing is trying to figure out why she didn’t love her son. That is really dangerous. If you’re a parent, that’s a hard place to live in.”
Normally, at the Sundance Resort in Utah, actors, directors, playwrights and dramaturgs gather for three weeks of communal and cosseted resort living while working on not-yet-produced scripts. “It’s almost concierge-like,” playwright David Adjmi says. “It’s like being at a really great restaurant where they know when to refill your water glasses and when to leave you alone, and it feels like magic. And it’s very holistic—they minister over the well-being of the artist, and not just the play, which is key.”
Martin Moran, another Utah Lab participant, dropped by Governors Island for the afternoon to read his latest solo work. He confirms Adjmi’s assessment: “The first time I went to Sundance as a light and actor with my own piece (The Tricky Part), this is what was so affecting and unforgettable: being on a mountain for three weeks with some of the greatest, wackiest, funniest, anxiety-ridden, obsessed, brilliant theatre artists in our community. So you’d ride the chair lift, or get a little drunk and stare at the night sky, or confess your summer-camp crushes—it’s so intimate all day… and night. It helped my work so much; I was creating this incredibly intimate sexual piece, and I felt so freakin’ safe and embraced.”
This past summer, however, the Lab has been forced to work with less as it attempts to serve the same number of artists. In 2009, the Theatre Program’s budget (about $1 million per year) was cut by 22 percent. Himberg and his lieutenant, Christopher Hibma, are experimenting with hosting a pair of two-week labs rather than a single three-week lab on site—forgoing the usual expenses of the resort, Himberg and Hibma were able to partner with other institutions. At Sundance, breakthrough ideas are de rigueur, but failure is difficult to critically gauge, because the notion of taking artistic risks is considered “a core value.” Disappointments and dead ends are common and viewed as being of small consequence, because the Sundance incubation process is not motivated by the demand to churn out finished products. “Product,” as traditionally conceived in the commercial-theatre arena or on the resident-theatre circuit, is considered anathema here, and so audiences, prospective producers and critics are not welcome. Seen in this light, it becomes quite challenging to realistically track the success or failure of the annual Theatre Lab—or, for that matter, that of any of the other satellite labs under Himberg’s auspices—because the success stories that have sprung from these efforts don’t often have the Sundance imprimatur directly attached to them. Unlike the winners and favorites of the Sundance Film Festival, which have become adept at using the Sundance name as a marketing wedge, Theatre Lab projects frequently come from or move on to other developmental situations that might also contribute to their breakthrough successes in the larger world.
Breaking up the Lab into two separate East Coast interludes this past summer did “fail” in one respect as an experiment. As Himberg confides, “One of the things we miss, because we had less money, is this sense of community. We had to go with smaller companies of 25 or 30 people at each venue. We miss the critical mass of having 85 people living and working together under one roof.” As a consequence, next year’s summer Lab will return to a three-week developmental retreat structure with everyone under one roof. From March 27 to April 17, 2011, the Lab will take place at the Banff Centre, nestled on Tunnel Mountain in the Alberta Rockies of Canada.
“I do have to say,” adds Hibma in a separate interview, “that our funders have been remarkable in their steadfastness. They have not taken away funding from the Theatre Program. Where the shortfall is lies in the corporate funding that supports the entire institution. That corporate support has picked up. We are seeing modest growth.”
Like most nonprofit groups, the Sundance Institute was hit hard in 2009 by rising costs and the nation’s economic woes; it went so far as to seek $1.5 million from the state of Utah so that it would not have to eliminate venues or downsize its annual 10-day film festival. Earlier this year, the institute released an economic-impact study that was clearly part of a pitch for future funding from the Utah legislature. The report stated that the 2010 film festival drew more people to Utah than did the 2009 event, but that, unfortunately, those people poured less money into the Utah’s economy (about $62.7 million, down by $30 million from the previous year), due mainly to more cautious spending by tourists and visitors. “The challenge we have is that because the Sundance Institute Theatre Program doesn’t touch the public directly, there’s very low visibility, and that makes it harder to raise money,” Himberg says. “After nearly 15 years, I still hear from people, ‘Oh, we didn’t know Sundance had a theatre program.’ That’s not surprising. Why would they? What is a Sundance play?”
One byproduct of removing the Theatre Lab from the Utah Rockies is the diminution (to practically nil) of the Robert Redford Aura of Proximity Quotient. Any glamour-struck theatre artist loses the incentive of applying to the Lab for the sole purpose of possibly catching sight of the Sundance Kid. Another correlative side effect is disentanglement from this 26-year-old institution’s storied sense of place. In the rough-sawn structures of Redford’s village, the feeling of escaping your ordinary life is enhanced by the adventure of plugging into the mythicized saga of a flourishing program, originally named Sundance Playwrights Lab, which since 1984 has offered a rare opportunity for theatre artists to exchange ideas outside of the pressure cooker of production. The Lab has been a kind of petri dish that seeds, nurtures and gathers a community of geographically disparate artists working in different genres and disciplines who come together, share ideas. talk about work, collaborate and see each, another venturing out in diverse and risky ways.
Somehow, this year, inside the cool, musty, uninhabited buildings of Governors Island, the Lab looked bare, austere and exposed. The island—deserted, fallow, bucolic—is perhaps a five-minute ride from the southern tip of Manhattan; it’s a former Coast Guard base, filled with intimations of a lost past, eerily quiet during the weekdays. But while it might occasionally feel like a land that time forgot, it does not provide a real alternate reality for most of the Lab participants, who are instantly reminded at the end of each rehearsal day of career demands and urban life’s distractions the minute they step off the ferry and ride the subways back to their New York apartments. The sense of deeply connecting with Sundance’s rugged history becomes less of a feature.
A third and perhaps more interesting result of physically disconnecting the Lab from the institute’s site-specific environs is that the dramaturgical process itself becomes the center of concentrated attention for any observer. Instead of the earnest seclusion defined by the mountain scenery or the pleasure of isolation from life’s daily stresses, or the synergy of artists sharing their creative efforts with other artists 24 hours a day, the focus now shifts to the basics and parameters of the Sundance-style approach to new-play development: What sort of enabling space does this developmental work process provide? Given the bleak truth-bombs dropped by recent studies (Outrageous Fortune and The Gates of Opportunity) that assess the infrastructural misalignments in the cultivation of works and artists for the stage, how do Sundance’s philosophical bases stand out from the rest of the developmental pack?
“Time is a very big value,” Himberg says, venturing a response. “Giving artists more time to work precedes [the value of organizing] more labs; the stretched-out breathing tine is important. Another core value is that the Lab is protected. There are no public performances; we’re developing work that is usually early enough in its life that it doesn’t want an audience coming into the room. Genre diversity is also important, so that very different kinds of artists are working alongside other kinds of artists. And there’s independence—this means we’re interested in artists who think outside the box or are trying to break the form.”
Himberg has overseen a developmental program that, in many profound ways, has hit a maturation stage. Restless expansion is a distinct marker for such full bloom. This past July (the month the Utah Lab usually begins), Himberg celebrated his 57th birthday on Manda Island, off the coast of Kenya, where Sundance launched its first full-scale East African Theatre Lab (budgeted at $100,000), as part of a separate five-year initiative to develop plays by writers from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. “We always had international artists at Sundance,” Himberg says. “Now it’s an initiative. International commitment is another value.”
“Our goals in East Africa are mammoth,” adds Hibma, who was interviewed after returning from Manda. “Success for us keeps being redefined to become more manageable. African writers need training; they need producers; they need money. Sundance can’t solve all those issues. But what we can do, and what we did do, is to identify the top artists in East Africa in this particular season and bring them together. Most of them had never met before. We facilitated intercultural exchange in the region. We introduced those artists with the likes of director Liesl Tommy, who will become, I’m sure, a mentor. We gave those African artists a space away from daily life, the hallmark of what Sundance is about. We offered them an opportunity to not worry about kids or where lunch is coming from or having to pay the bar bill. They came, they had the experience, and they can move forward.”
While Sundance Institute’s executive offices remain in Los Angeles, Himberg, Hibma and the Theatre Program have moved to New York City, though the program still employs talent scouts in such cities as Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Minneapolis (“We’re not New York-centric in that regard,” Himberg says). This relocation has had a profound effect: “We see more work, and I’m having more meetings with people,” he says. “I’m partnering with more theatres. We’re much more active and much more in communication with young people and hinders.” Ever since Sundance broadened the parameters of who might be considered a project’s lead artist, a key element has been the adoption of a more project-centered development style to complement a text-based approach to creating theatre. Still, whatever activities he undertakes. Himberg insists that he takes the greatest care to make sure that Sundance is ”always, always” serving playwrights–helping them stay true to their original generative impulse.
The original Sundance Playwrights Lab, developed by Redford three years after he founded the Feature Film Program, was born out of two related events: In 1980, the Utah Arts Council created the Utah Playwriting Conference, and the following year Redford invited the conference to meet at his new Sundance Institute. After a period of research, including a visit to observe the O’Neill Playwrights Conference processes at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., Redford renamed the Utah conference in 1984 as the Sundance Playwrights Lab for emerging dramatists. Headed by David Kranes, the program offered intensive and playful script development for writers, who were invited to participate based on the recommendation of a theatre. It was Kranes who created and shaped the deeply reflective yet actively exploratory mission of Sundance.
Kranes also established the current practice of scheduling rehearsals every other day, culminating with an in-house reading. The day off between rehearsal days allows writers to institute changes or explore further-writing. Since there is no public presentation, a more relaxed atmosphere is promoted for writers, directors and actors to reflect on their own processes. (By contrast, the summer residencies of the O’Neill, the closest parallel of the Sundance retreats, reinforce an impression of new-play shopping, since rehearsal periods lead to a public staged reading in front of audiences, critics and producers.) The Playwrights Lab, moreover, engaged the work of resource artists such as historians, psychiatrists, ritualists, choreographers or experts whose held of expertise might contribute something directly or indirectly valuable to the writers.
By now, it is generally understood that 1997 was a watershed year for theatre at Sundance. That year, the Playwrights Lab was revamped, its title changing to the Theatre Lab, and a second phase of the program commenced with Kranes stepping down and Redford actively looking for a change in direction that would encompass different types of theatre (musicals, dance-theatre, performance art and so forth) that were not being addressed in the old Lab. Redford hired Himberg as the producing director of the overall Theatre Program; Himberg in turn hired Robert Blacker to be artistic director of the Lab itself. Under this new dispensation, that atmosphere was more or less “anything goes.” Directors assumed greater roles in the development of plays, while taking great care that writers were not left in the lurch. In an awkward effort to explain to the media the nature of the changes that were instituted, some observers offered that the writer-oriented method of actors at tables reading scripts was being-eschewed at Sundance in favor of putting plays “on their feet.”
Such statements were misleading and inaccurate. Although the focus was indeed on the written word during the pre-Himberg phase of Sundance, scripts had always been given a chance to be physically explored by actors off the page. On Governors Island, I observe that the great usefulness of table work has not been discounted—only one of the three projects, Rivers’s When Last We Flew, is being staged on its feet; this quirky and surprisingly, touching drama, about a small-town African-American Kansas teenager whose literary obsession with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America propels a suburban fantasia of coming out, was further along in its development than the other plays. This past August, director Colette Robert ably premiered When We Last Flew in the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. “What was added at Sundance was the backstory before the start of the play,” Rivers says. “The script exploded to become a good 15 or 20 pages longer. Later in production, the backstory was the first stuff to go. We knew the play tremendously well; when we started rehearsals, we started at step five rather than step one.” The production script, which Rivers popped to me via e-mail, is at once an overt homage and a poetical creation in its own right; it heralds the emergence of a thoughtful new voice.
Traditionally structured dramas continue to be developed at Sundance, but the program empowers writers to choose or suggest their own directors at the time of application (as opposed to being assigned a director one has never met). Moreover, the key participants of the Lab come through an open application process (although a playwrights’ retreat at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, entering its 12th year in February 2011, is by invitation only). Accompanying the focus on the collaboration between the writer and director, each Lab assembles creative advisors to offer advice and feedback; playwright Lynn Nottage and lighting designer Beverly Emmons are on hand at Governors Island. And each project is assigned a dramaturg.
In Himberg’s effort to increase the Lab’s profile, recent press releases put a premium, on musicals (Spring Awakening, The Light in the Piazza, Grey Gardens and Passing Strange) and dramas (The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife, Yellowman and Dogeaters) that have attained popular and critical success on Broadway or nationally, or sometimes on film and television. Himberg confesses that this high-profile emphasis “is more marketing than anything else.” He adds, “Of course, 95 percent of the work we do at Sundance doesn’t go to Broadway. I’m absolutely proud of the works that move into the regional theatres.”
This “greatest hits” list of Sundance projects, despite their flashy name value and mainstream attainments, signifies the ability of Sundance to fast-track groundbreaking projects and move them light years ahead of the game. From an organizational standpoint, the program’s administrative success issues from the way Himberg and his staff continually finesse and adapt the program to meet the always-evolving obstacles that theatre artists face on the path to production. As Adjmi testifies, “The thing about the process at Sundance is it is so breathable and plastic and open and adaptable that it can kind of be anything you need it to be—and this is to me the watermark of a great institution: It has a basic structure, but it doesn’t lord a bunch of prerogatives and mandates over you.”
Frequently, as in the case of MASS MoCA and Governors Island, new partnerships are forged to meet specific and urgent realities. Sundance’s partnership with the Ucross Foundation, which began in 2000, is an effort to create a playwrights’ colony. A partnership with the White Oak Foundation in Florida that began in 2003 (and was temporarily suspended by the Howard Gilman Foundation) was an effort to invent a lab specifically geared for musicals and ensemble-generated projects. This message of flexibility in the throes of fresh challenges is brought home at a picture-taking session on Governors Island, when a number of Lab participants goofily pose for snapshots as they stand in front of a wall-sized poster of Utah’s snow-capped Mt. Timpanogos. One actor raises his boot to pretend that he is hiking. A wise ass playwright makes a funny face while clutching at a hoodie to act like the wind is blowing fiercely. Show these silly photos in a slideshow and a kind of pattern emerges: The revelation is not that Sundance has revolutionized U.S. dramaturgy as we know it, but that the essential thrust of the Theatre Lab is to alter and adjust opportunities and resources for artists to provide a freer, enabling space that can accommodate an infinite variety of approaches and visions. In the current environment of economic challenges and fewer productions for new work, that morphing vigilance seems to me quite radical.
At a September panel discussion held at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, titled “Dramaturgy: Heaven, Not Hell” and subtitled “Models of Development and Production Dramaturgy that Nurture the Play and Playwright,” Himberg utters a mantra he repeats so often it sometimes loses its meaning—but the impact on listeners still holds. “The space that defines the Sundance Theatre Program,” he says, “is that precious wedge of time between ‘idea’ and ‘production,’ when artists dream, leap into their discomfort, their unknown, and get closer to their vision.”
“Underneath Philip Himberg’s acute dramaturgical mind, it’s all Barbra Streisand, all the time,” quips the playwright Doug Wright, who frequents the Labs. “If you asked, he could sing every album!” “The years Philip spent doing acupuncture informs how he responds to playwrights,” Hibma adds, with a smile. “He’s still a drama queen, though.” Born and raised in suburban Connecticut, Himberg as a teenager dated his high-school girlfriend, who almost 25 years later offered to act as surrogate child-bearer for Philip and his ex-partner of 13 years Jim Ballantine (a producer of animation and children’s entertainment such as “The Ren & Stimpy Show”). In 1991, Himberg became a father to a daughter, Fanny. At the time, he was still a doctor of Chinese medicine and acupuncture, though he had worked brief stints at resident theatres in New York and Los Angeles. “Being on the West Coast, I was exposed to New Age and alternative medicine,” Himberg says. “I was approaching ‘Saturn returns,’ a shift in my life. I thought that being a doctor of some sort would satisfy some part of me that wanted to take care of people. Part of me, at age 28 or 29, was hungry for a body of knowledge that is very concrete and that I could latch onto.”
Himberg, who continues to freelance today as a theatre director, studied theatre arts in the 1970s at Oberlin College under the famed director and theoretician Herbert Blau (his classmates included Bill Irwin, Sharon Ott and Julie Taymor), and in his twenties served as co-artistic director of Playwrights Horizons and later as a staff producer for the Mark Taper Forum’s Improvisational Theatre Project in Los Angeles. “My training was in psycho-physical work,” Himberg notes. “My orientation was really in devised theatre and ensemble-based work. My training under Blau was also extremely intellectual, so I have great respect for people who are thinking deeply about creating work.”
When Himberg came to Sundance in 1997, he ran the producing arm of the Sundance program, which performed musicals and children’s plays for the Utah public in an outdoor amphitheatre on the property. Master dramaturg Robert Blacker (whom Craig Lucas, for one, praises as “a treasure, a national jewel and a genius”) became a mentor for Himberg, who was regaining his theatre legs after being away for a rime. Almost imperceptibly, Himberg assumed leadership of the Lab, taking over its sole reins in 2005, thus commencing the Lab’s present phase. Under his leadership, it enjoys an extraordinary reputation in the field.
“Lately there has been a lot of bashing of new-play development when it’s done in the context of producing plays,” Himberg says. “However, people who do not produce but only develop are, by and large, liked by artists—by nature, we have a clearer path, a clearer mission, and are clearly artist-centered. We don’t have to field all those complications. At Sundance, we have no [commercial] connection to the work in any way, shape or form, so we can do this work fairly purely. We don’t have an agenda. New-play development organizations are well-led and well-intentioned. Could there be more of them? Absolutely. Is Sundance stressful? Yes, always. We may even choose work that we don’t think is necessarily the best work by a particular artist, or work that’s going he guaranteed production–but we believe so much in the artist that we think that he or she deserves the opportunity to work on this piece, whether or not it ever finds production.”
The altruism that informs this ecological approach is continually being poked, prodded and tested as Himberg angles for the Theatre Program to attain field leadership during a time of painfully critical self-analysis for the new-play development field in the U.S. “After seeing plays not being produced as well as they could be, or hearing how playwrights are not getting great experiences in a production situation,” he says, “we began to ask ourselves, ‘Do we have a role beyond the end of the labs?'”
Part of the answer lies in the search for continuity. “I live in this neat world, because I don’t have to worry about audiences,” Himberg says. “A lot of people are probably resentful: You are just doing new-play development—what do you know about running a theatre? But we’ve got to figure out a new model where we can provide expanded support. I don’t know what that is, but at Sundance, we always ask the field how we’re doing, and if we can do what we do better. We’re beginning to see ourselves [being useful] on a longer term.”
Like a perpetual mathematical series, Sundance labs always lead to different theatrical sums (or sometimes no sum at all), because the organization’s take on new-play development by definition seeks to defer the theatre artist’s search for ultimate fulfillment—which is production. The trick is to evolve without needing endgames—that is, unless one is forced on you. A Sundance play, in this regard, can only ever be a disappearing number.
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