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Camp Dramaturge

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

In May, Center Theatre Group’s new artistic director, Michael Ritchie, axed a bevy of play development initiatives whose combined budgets last year totaled $1 million; last year, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa discontinued its Hispanic Playwrights Project; and A.S.K. Theater Projects exited for good in 2003.

Unlike some of the other heavyweights in the field -- the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut, the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., and the Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Rep -- Sundance is off-limits to the theatergoing public and treats prospective play producers like lepers. The others sell tickets and pride themselves as marketplaces where visiting scouts can pick shows for subsequent staging. At Sundance, it is felt, any scent of money and careerism wafting in from the real world would taint the artistic innocence of theater Eden, where “process” is a buzzword and “product” a dirty one.

“You don’t have any of the indignities of the acting life when you’re here,” says young New York actor Thomas Sadoski. That’s a frequent refrain among those in the acting ensemble, who are relieved to have a breather away from auditions and scuffling for a living. The best-known face here belongs to Wayne Knight, who played Newman on “Seinfeld.”

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“The concerns of institutional theaters and Broadway producers are a million miles away. It gives you security,” says playwright Doug Wright, who came to Sundance in 2000 -- and credits the collaborative process here with helping him untangle knotted reams of material that had caused him nothing but writer’s block.

The eventual result was “I Am My Own Wife,” which went on to win two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

“We took off our shoes, got drunk nightly at the Owl Bar, rode the chairlift,” Wright recalls over the phone from his home in New York.

“There was the sense we could work without consequence, and nothing is more liberating than that.”

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“Sundance is the cream of the crop for new work in the theater. Nothing else comes even close,” playwright Craig Lucas says in an e-mail exchange. In 2002, he and composer Adam Guettel took an initial test-drive here with their musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” now a Tony-festooned Broadway hit.

“The Laramie Project,” one of the new century’s most acclaimed works, also began to take shape at Sundance, in 1999.

And while “no outside pressure” may be the Lab’s watchword, a huge poster of Jefferson Mays, the solo star of “I Am My Own Wife,” hangs conspicuously in the dining tent -- reminder enough that a pure process does not militate against a prime product.

Not hate, exactly

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HER roiled stomach soothed after a long bout of nausea, Sevan steps onstage in the empty Sundance screening room -- the only actual theater available to the lab, which otherwise makes do with wood-beamed spaces more befitting a ski lodge.

Revitalized by her streamside nap, Sevan has rewritten a large chunk of “Taking Flight.”

She performs it for Sardelli, the New York-based director, and Hunt, a veteran of the Seattle theater scene who is the Sundance lab’s head dramaturge.

Sevan enacts comical wedding preparations, a boombox on the floor blasting Bon Jovi instead of “Here Comes the Bride.” Tragedy ensues. A magical, mamboing, Spanglish-spouting presence named Esperanza materializes: “I am the life of the party of life.... I am the hope in the middle of the pain.” Sevan’s alter ego, a struggling actress named Adriana, tries to be a ministering angel but falls into a puddle of her own pain, deepened by self-neglect.

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Sardelli’s eyes become rimmed in red -- the only color that doesn’t go with her offhandedly chic ensemble -- and she declares that there will be no more rehearsals without a box of Kleenex in reach.

As one watches these three at intervals over their two-week collaboration, their bond becomes evident.

And yet ...

“You hate me,” Hunt says at one point in a muted voice, looking abashedly at Sevan. All sisterhood aside, the dramaturge’s instincts and experience tell her that one of the scenes the writer holds most dear just won’t fit.

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“I don’t hate you at all,” Sevan says, head down, in a clipped murmur that can’t disguise her hurt. “I’m grieving,” she admits, after a pause. “I’m grieving because I have no argument for it.”

Conciliatory cross talk follows.

“I’m going to find a reason to keep it,” the playwright vows -- setting herself up for another session with her laptop. That will hardly be the end of her grappling with a script that, before Sundance, she had considered 90% done.

A call for courage

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JUMP in. Be brave. We’re reading it cold,” Greif tells the cast of “Most Wanted.” The scripts they’ve been handed around a rectangular assemblage of tables contain rewrites they’re seeing for the first time. The stocky, curly-haired director works with a mixture of efficiency and goodwill, urging the reading along while bestowing verbal back-pats on the fly.

As the rehearsal ends, he counsels his cast to be ready for more sudden shifts in the script. “That’s the dynamic we’re living in.”

Outside the rehearsal hall a few moments later, Gerrit Graham, a tall, wavy-haired actor who has spent nearly 40 years onstage, says the dynamic won’t really become dynamic until the cast has ditched the tables and chairs and started to really perform the piece.

“Stuff comes up in the playing that never comes up around the table when you’re reading.”

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One week later, “Most Wanted” is on its feet, and Greif is maneuvering actors across the floor, coaching them in the fast-paced action that the show’s quick-cut storytelling demands. Librettist and co-lyricist Hagedorn, a leading Philippine American literary voice collaborating on her first musical, has conferred with songwriter Bennett over drinks during the lab’s annual cha-cha party; there they decide to risk inserting a ballad in the show’s final sequence -- gambling that rather than stalling momentum it will pay off in a deepening of the magazine reporter character who serves as a foil to the killer. It is she who ultimately must be the audience’s guide to the meatiest theme of “Most Wanted”: the distorting effect of living in a post-Warholian America besotted with celebrity and lusting for sensation.

On a ‘Rocky Mountain high’

IT’S over now for “Taking Flight.” It has led off the weeklong series in which all eight plays at the lab are being presented, whatever their state of readiness. Sevan, joyfully teary, gives a long, lingering hug to actor Graham, whom she hardly knows. Nearby, Edmund White, the novelist-essayist who is taking fledgling steps into drama with his Timothy McVeigh-inspired play, “Terre Haute,” praises Sevan’s show for eschewing conventional sentiments about Sept. 11 and victimhood. Hunt, the dramaturge, jumps and lets out a triumphant whoop.

The warm receptions will be repeated often as the presentations roll on, because at Sundance it’s always like kids putting on a play in the backyard for doting relatives and neighbors -- except this little community lasts for just three weeks, and the kids are awfully talented.

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Jerry Patch, who ran the Sundance theater program from 1990 to 1996, refers to this bonhomie as “the Rocky Mountain high.” To him, it’s the one paradisiacal dimension of Sundance that isn’t so helpful to the playwright.

“Everybody’s having such a good time and everybody’s so optimistic, you find the good in everything and are charitable in a way that [general] audiences aren’t,” says Patch, the resident artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego.

That’s where Sundance’s feedback sessions come in.

For 90 minutes or more, the creative teams sit around a table for a dialogue with producing artistic director Himberg, all the lab’s dramaturges and several guest experts, flown in to add their two cents. The discussions are closed to the rest of the lab community.

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“The sessions are very rigorous,” Himberg says. “I don’t think anyone walks out of there feeling they’ve just been patted on the back.”

Artists differ on the feedback phase. “I’m not a big fan,” playwright Lucas says. “It’s just too many cooks. Too many people, too many conflicting opinions.”

White says he fought back on some points -- “I’m pretty feisty” -- but within a day of his session, he reports that he’s radically reworked “Terre Haute” in response.

Sevan comes out of her “Taking Flight” session in a bit of a spin. “It’s hard when you’re taking feedback from eight people at the same time. But the questions were very consistent with what Giovanna and Mame and I already knew.”

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“I don’t feel I’ve done in the writing what I know inside,” the novice playwright, who has had several lead acting roles at South Coast Repertory, had lamented during one rehearsal, as she grappled with an elusive ending. All the wrestling and purging was worth it, she says at the end of the process. Sundance helped her probe for what was missing. “It’s richer, more rewarding. We really did what we came here to do.”

A week later, one of the guest experts, Allan Knee (author of the play on which the film “Finding Neverland” was based), emerges from the “Most Wanted” feedback session feeling invigorated and eager to transfer that energy into his own writing. “It was good, it was intense, it was very alive,” he says.

“We all dug the reporter,” he says of the character Hagedorn and Bennett particularly aimed to hone at the lab. “She is complex, and her use is complex.”

Still, Knee says, there were criticisms. For his part, he wants to hear more variety and emotional range in the songs sung by the lead character, the killer who seems almost angelic when he’s growing up and falling in love, then turns sinister as his dreams of glamour and ease are ruined by some of life’s typical hard knocks.

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“It’s far enough along that we’ve asked ourselves a lot of the same questions,” Hagedorn reports. “I think the momentum is great.” The La Jolla Playhouse commissioned “Most Wanted” -- though with no guarantee of a production. Artistic director Des McAnuff will have the final say on what happens next.

Redford, who has the ultimate say about the strategic direction of the Sundance Theatre Program, is on the mountain for a short spell during the lab’s last week, but he’s just too busy working on movies to drop in as he usually does. He does manage to chat for a few minutes in his office housed in a modest cabin a few yards up a gently sloping pathway from the enclave of buildings where plays are being rehearsed.

During the early 1990s, Sundance became a brand name that helped independent films prosper -- indeed, the film festival functions as a leading marketplace for studios and distributors looking for properties and fresh talent. Might it not help if there were a comparable brand that stood for a certain independent spirit on the stage?

Over the years, Redford says, he has thought of raising the public profile of this hidden play incubator. One idea is annually producing a new play and filming it for the Sundance Channel. That would require a large increase in the Sundance Theatre Program’s budget, which is almost entirely donated and which last year was $893,000 (compared with more than $11 million for the film festival and labs for emerging screenwriters, directors and film composers). He also speaks of bringing a Sundance theater presence to big cities, maybe partnering with established, independent-minded stage companies for -- something.

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But if Redford seems inclined to sprinkle a little bit of thespian heaven on the world below, his final word on the subject makes one wonder whether, after 41 years away from stage acting (his last play was the original Broadway production of “Barefoot in the Park”), there’s still some Hamlet-like indecision to be cut through before we see a brand rollout for Sundance-style theater.

“When you see what goes on here, you see [theater] in its rawest, roughest form, and there’s something about that I find really appealing,” he says. “And there was always a question: Should we ever occupy ourselves with something beyond this raw, virginal state? And then, of course, the answer was ‘Yes.’ But I do like it the way it is.”


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