The annual SundanceTheatre Lab at Robert Redford’s Sundance resort in Utah means hard work in a relaxed setting for playwrights who get three weeks to tinker with nascent scripts they're hoping to perfect, and a mountainside working vacation amid babbling brooks for an acting corps recruited to help the writers see how well their scenes play.
Several acting luminaries are attached to this year’s Lab, which began Monday and runs through July 29. The 27-member ensemble includes Cherry Jones, who won lead actress Tony awards for “The Heiress” (1995) and “Doubt” (2005), and Raul Esparza, whose four Tony nominations include roles written by Stephen Sondheim, Harold Pinter and David Mamet.
Also on hand are Tony Plana, the executive artistic director of East L.A. Classic Theatre who played the father of title character Betty Suarez on the TV series “Ugly Betty,” Keith David, a Tony nominee in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and Andre De Shields, a two-time Tony nominee, one of which was for “The Full Monty.”
Jones and Plana are pulling double duty. She’s assigned to “Appropriate,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play about an Arkansas family that reunites to divide the estate of its newly-dead patriarch, and “Useless Bay,” Sarah Treem’s drama about the proprietor of an early 1970s bed and breakfast in the Pacific Northwest that doubles as a shelter for abused girls. Treem workshopped the same story last summer at the Ojai Playwrights Conference under a different title, “When We Were Young and Unafraid.”
Plana is cast in “Song for the Disappeared,” Tanya Saracho’s script, commissioned by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, about a wealthy family in Texas whose son has gone missing in Mexico. Northern California playwright Octavio Solis is directing the workshop. Plana also is in “ToasT,” along with David and De Shields. Lemon Anderson's play, commissioned by the Under the Radar festival at New York’s Public Theater, is set amid turmoil inside Attica, the infamous prison in New York state.
Esparza, known for his singing as well as dramatic roles, is in “Fun Home,” a musical composed by Jeanine Tesori (“Shrek: The Musical,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline, or Change”) with lyrics and script by Lisa Kron, whose “The Wake” had its 2010 world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatere in Culver City. Sam Gold is directing the musical version of the graphic novel that Alison Bechdel based on her relationship with her funeral-director father.
The cast of “A Cage of Fireflies,” an account of three Japanese American sisters by Honolulu-based playwright Daniel Akiyama, includes L.A. stage regulars Emily Kuroda and Jeanne Sakata.
The other plays being workshopped are Ken Greller’s “Hands,” about longtime male friends in the Baltimore suburbs -- one of whom is transitioning to become a woman, and “Africa Kills Her Sun,” a piece in Swahili that Sundance nurtured last year in its East African theater lab at Manda Island in Kenya. Adapter-performers Mrisho Mpoto and Irene Sanga are developing the dramatization of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s 1989 book satirizing government corruption in Nigeria, which took the form of a condemned man’s last love letter; it foreshadowed the author’s own execution in 1995.
The Sundance Theatre Lab, launched in 1984 as the stage wing of Redford's independent film-fostering Sundance Institute, calls for a closed performance of each workshopped piece at the end of the three weeks, followed by feedback sessions in which the playwrights and directors discuss the results with a panel of experts that this year includes playwrights Constance Congdon and Lydia Diamond, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Centerstage in Baltimore.
Shows nurtured in previous Sundance theater labs include the musicals “Spring Awakening” by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater; “Passing Strange” by Stew and Heidi Rodewald; and “Gray Gardens” by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie; and the plays “I Am My Own Wife” by Wright; and “Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker.