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Camp Dramaturge

THEATER | THEATER

Sundance calls to playwrights too, but profits, critics and even egos are the last things on anyone's mind.

August 21, 2005|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Sundance, Utah — HERE'S Adriana Sevan, laughing and crying and doing the mambo on stage in God's mile-high piece of heaven for theater folk, where Robert Redford is the benevolent but seldom present deity.

In theater, however, even heaven can be taxing. Sevan is undergoing some radical purging: first of her digestive tract, and now with the script of her one-woman show, "Taking Flight." The staff of the Sundance Theatre Lab has ministered to Sevan's stomach woes, providing organic chicken broth and brown rice, and a place to nap away queasiness, lulled by the sound of a whitewater stream.

Now she's refreshed, and a close-knit team of artistic counselors is gathered around a table on a stage, midwifing her play, a fictionalized account of Sevan's real-life attempt to help a friend injured in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Dramaturge Mame Hunt and director Giovanna Sardelli prod, challenge, weep, hug and cheer for her through the delicate task of rearranging the guts of her script. Just five days ago, she thought it would need only a touch-up.

A very different kind of hard-work-as-play is in progress nearby, in an echoey space that "must be the most spectacular rehearsal room in the world," according to Suzanne Bertish, a veteran British actress who is at Sundance for the first time. Its sliding picture windows frame a view of swift waters spilling over rocks and down into a placid pool. Because a river runs through it, Sundance is always engulfed in a low, pleasant roar, like the sound of constant applause.

The show, "Most Wanted," boasts the biggest cast and the highest-profile creative team at work in this year's theater lab. Novelist-playwright Jessica Hagedorn ("Dogeaters"), songwriter Mark Bennett (branching out after years as a successful sound designer) and director Michael Greif (of "Rent" fame) aim to retell, in fictional, music-theater form, the story of Andrew Cunanan, the spree-killer who murdered Gianni Versace. Their agenda at the lab is to turn what some might dismiss as inherently unpalatable characters into complex and emotionally compelling linchpins of the show, capable of drawing in an audience.

After three years of intermittent work, Sundance is the place where the "Most Wanted" creative team finally can watch a cast put what they've wrought into motion -- in theater parlance, "putting the show on its feet."

Every July, seven or eight playwrights, similar numbers of directors and dramaturges, and a few dozen actors, converge on Redford's rustic, wood-built compound on the lower slopes of 11,750-foot Mt. Timpanogos. He bought the property with other investors in 1969 and founded the nonprofit Sundance Institute in 1981 to foster independent artists in a variety of fields. A playwrights' program was inaugurated in 1984, and the then-obscure but now-famous independent film festival in nearby Park City came under Sundance auspices in 1985.

The lab is an extended interlude, pampered and privileged -- though it pays only a $500 stipend -- in which theater artists are free to toy with creative possibilities because there is no opening-night deadline to meet, no critics or public to please. Here, everyone has a chance to get away from it all and remember why stories told in theaters are called "plays."

New-play development, Sundance style, means three weeks of cosseted and communal resort living. Big buffet meals are shared under a huge, blue-carpeted, white vinyl tent that houses tables draped in colorful linens. The artists live in woodland vacation homes loaned by wealthy owners. Unifying rituals are conducted early in the retreat -- among them a climb to a meadow where all lab participants are blessed by a Ute Indian spiritual leader, one by one, with the touch of an eagle feather.

There's also the annual inspirational keynote speech -- sometimes delivered by Redford, but more often, lately, by his lieutenant, Philip Himberg, who oversees the Sundance theater program as producing artistic director.

Himberg arrived in 1996 as Redford decided to broaden the scope of what had theretofore been known as the Sundance Playwrights Lab to embrace directors and staging concepts in addition to rigorous attention to the writers' language and ideas.

Like the Sundance Institute's executive director, Kenneth Brecher, Himberg served under Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum in the 1970s and '80s. He then spent more than a decade practicing Chinese medicine in Santa Monica; Brecher (who ran a children's museum and a charitable foundation after his Taper tenure) summoned Himberg back to the mission of developing new plays.

Play development is a mission that lately has grown financially beleaguered, notably in Southern California, which has been losing new-play development programs at the rate of one a year.

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