American Theater | Sundance Theater Program, Power Breaks

Art director Philip Himberg, director Liesl Tommy and playwright Qui Nguyen at Sundance in 2012. (Photo by Fred Hayes)

The Sundance Theater program never had a proper burial or requiem. Not exactly Polynesia’s problem, but there’s still no official moment to mourn its passing, as somehow, in the thick of the pandemic and the strong winds of the social justice movement, a much-loved game development program has quietly disappeared . 40 years later. I had the privilege of overseeing the Sundance Theater Lab for more than half of that time.

A month ago, the Sundance Institute electronically issued an announcement confirming that due to budgetary concerns, a “new version” of the Sundance Theater — effectively a hybrid of three separate and now-extinct Sundance projects — is being phased out. The recent revisions to the Theater Lab are a bit of a mystery in themselves.

Let me stand by this: In 2019, after 23 years as the artistic director of the Sundance Theatre Program, I made the difficult decision to step down. Twenty-three years have been enough time for me to have one of the most satisfying and dynamic theatre jobs anywhere. I have worked with and supported hundreds of artists, and with outstanding colleagues, including some of the most insightful playwrights in our world. In my heart, I only know that this is the time to “make room” and I very much hope that the Academy will find a new leadership for the theatre program – someone who can bring a remarkable new perspective to developing theatre, and in his leadership Under it it will thrive.

When asked, “But what are you going to do next?” I replied, “Not sure, but I know how to create and run an artist-in-residence. Maybe I’ll find something in that world.” Then, when This usually happens when you put a very clear energy into the world, McDowell asked me to interview their executive director.

My Sundance farewell party is a memory I will cherish. At the Public Theater Library, in a show curated by my Sundance creative partner Christopher Hibma, Michael Jackson, Todd Almond, Sommie, and Jeanne Tessori (among others) People) and others serenaded me and heard recommendations from dozens of playwrights, actors, directors. I drank. After a while, I started to feel like I was sitting in front of my own Shiva. Later, when I told my therapist about it, he said, “Awesome! Who can attend their own funeral?”

Ultimately, it also became an elegy for the Sundance Theatre Project. How do I feel about the fact that Sundance leadership revealed to me before my last day of official tenure that they were considering a “pause” of theater programming after I left? My feeling is anger. Is the success of a theatre producer at Sundance so easy to throw away? If these leaders step down, will Sundance’s leadership suspend the festival or the film lab? We all know that “interruption” is often a precursor to “end”.

For the next year and a half, Christopher Hibma led the theatrical program with grace and vision. While we certainly don’t know, the last live broadcast of the Utah Sundance Theater Project will be in July 2019 led by Christopher and a guest artistic director, the sublime Lisa Peterson, multiple alumni of our program . I was fortunate enough to help select those 2019 projects, but when the lab opened, I was already located on Mount McDowell, New Hampshire, observing from a distance.

A year later, the Theater Lab went virtual. It was then announced that there would be a “break”. Results of a formal survey of our field, interviewing dozens of alumni and supporters to determine next steps. The next step is very incomprehensible in my opinion. Will no longer be a lab focused on writers, directors and collaborative teams, but an improved “hybrid” model that combines the Sundance Film Music Program and the Film’s New Frontiers program with the remnants of a theater program , in order to “see the progress”, to understand the creation method of contemporary art. OK The whole effort came to an end recently after a live performance at the Ucross Foundation, a staunch partner of the Sundance Theater Lab for 25 years.

When the fantastic game development hub The Lark tragically closes its doors in 2021, the announcement of the end is at least loud and clear (if not) all the reasons behind), we are all mourning. When some of us mentioned “Wow, no lark, and no Sundance Theater Lab,” many were shocked to hear that the Sundance Theater Lab also ceased operations.

Running the Sundance Theater Lab was without a doubt the greatest adventure of my life. The Labs intends to expand globally, with a decade-long commitment to artists Six East African countries, including three-week labs in Lamu and Zanzibar, workshops in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kigali, Dar es Salaam and Kampala. Global Artist Citizenship is a huge learning curve, co-led by extraordinary East African art creators, including playwright Asimvi Deborah. Another era was born when we turned our attention to the Middle East and North Africa. Jumana Al-Yasiri oversees these meetings with us.

Perhaps my most cherished moment was when we moved our annual Sundance Utah Lab to Marrakech, Morocco, where half the projects were American, half Arab world artists.Max Posner TreasurerMartina Mayoc’s sanctuary citywith Hansol Jung’s Yan dream is one of the new plays developed with the works of Syrian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Tunisian, Egyptian and Palestinian writers. Feeling adventurous and innovative, the world artist community came to trust Sundance.

Granted, running a theatrical program under the banner of a giant film academy is always a bit slippery. With irreversible changes in film production technology and distribution, Sundance needs to step up to the challenge, so resources are growing exponentially to meet the growing demand for films. I got it. As a member of the senior leadership, I have learned a lot and supported the budget tilt to deepen and expand the needs of filmmakers.

Theater also needs resources, and I am the first to acknowledge the amazing autonomy and trust that the Sundance board and leadership have granted us. Even so, I watched as we turned into hijabs on our heads at the Sundance Film Festival. We sometimes feel a little like redhead stepson.

This feeling is ironic, because Sundance founder Robert Redford didn’t hesitate to remind us that when he started the academy in the 1980s, he almost immediately established what was then the Playwrights Lab, the same Rui runs the Film Lab project alongside Patch and David Chambers. Bob proudly considers himself a theater guy because that’s where he started his career. I had the pleasure of accompanying him to the New York theater more than once, and he would often say afterwards, “I wish I hadn’t waited that long. It’s too late to go back.” Of course, I always urged him to reconsider.

My sense is that when the academy is forced to make prioritization decisions, especially when we are so rudely hit by our upside-down world, the theatre program seems to be a dispensation because it is ultimately not what the academy professed to be the “core” One of the values.” We are on the chopping block because we are seen as inconsequential branches on the mighty trunk of the Sundance tree.

This was and still is a tragic misunderstanding of theater and how it operates at Sundance. Robert Redford doesn’t see drama as “another”. In fact, for him and me, the theater is a melting pot, a beacon, a slow-burning, inner heat from which much of the art of cinema itself springs. In a sense, it is the root of the tree. We hold the beating heart of the Academy in our hands, and I know that theatre artists nourish its soul. And, unlike movies, we don’t need a lot to tell our stories. All we need is space—an empty room on Sundance, or an empty house in the desert, or an outdoor patio by the Indian Ocean, or a hotel lobby—and each other, an invention by talented souls and Created creative community. tell a story.

To me, the tragedy of the Sundance Theatre Lab’s ending is that the core of the storytelling is somehow considered “superfluous”, unnecessary, and possibly even distracting from the business at hand. That business appears to have grown for its own sake. Whenever the leadership at Sundance meets, I am disturbed that the topic of money has entered the conversation so quickly. Didn’t Radford create the Institute as a refuge from the capitalist pressures of Hollywood? As the Institute’s annual budget grows from $13 million to $21 million, and eventually to $51 million, with an eye toward a $700,000-plus budget, I often ask, “Is it possible that we’re big enough?” or even, “Maybe we could be smaller?” But leadership is locked into what I think is the “more” and “bigger” model of capitalism. I’ve been waiting for the shoes to drop and there’s a huge correction in the market, or maybe the festival goes out of style and our revenue goes down. What will happen then? None of us could have imagined that this asteroid was actually heading towards us all.

Those of us working in the new field of nonprofits know that playwrights always need space, time, and community to stretch their muscles and allow themselves to make mistakes. Young, mid-career or seasoned writers, there is not a single writer I know who doesn’t need the time to write, and there is no place where they can serve a production with a very bright and talented actor.

At the end of each lab, at the final party, I would hesitate, and eventually an actor, writer, choreographer, or composer would come to me and say, “I’ve been to a lot of workshops, but I’ve made More achievements here than at any time in my life. Most importantly, I met people from all over the world that I would never have known otherwise. I found new collaborators.”

These days, as I walk through New York City or take the subway every week, I inevitably encounter artists touched by Sundance. I’m often told simply: “Sundance changed my life,” or, “Sundance gave me my career.”

The truth is, it goes both ways. The artists who define the Sundance Theatre, in turn shape our theatrical lives, provide us with the oxygen we need to survive, especially in these days, as I observe theatre producers taking on things that few others risk. risk. Their experiments have created revolutionary ways of seeing themselves, crossing boundaries, literally and figuratively, all the time.

I’ve had the pleasure of sitting among several recently released dramas that I helped select for their final lab, which just met their audiences. The Sundance imprint on some of these productions is light (conversations with the playwrights in the lab); other shows I’ve seen recently received multiple residencies in the lab.i sit Kimberly akimbo and safos and a strange loop and Wandering Trilogy and Biological Oratorio My eyes started to water.

What institutions will support these artists, let alone those we don’t know about yet? I think new ways to elevate live storytellers will emerge, because just as theatrical productions will always be around, inventions are endless. Let us be hopeful. Let’s remember.

RIP Sundance Theater Lab.

Philip Himberg (he/he) is McDowell.

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