EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Philip Himberg, Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program
When people hear "Sundance" they think film. Many may be surprised to learn that through its Sundance Institute Theatre Program, Robert Redford's long-running institute and festival has had a hand in the development of hit shows like A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Passing Strange, Fun Home, Light in the Piazza, Little Miss Sunshine, Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens.
On Monday, September 29 at Symphony Space in New York City, the Sundance Institute Theatre Program celebrates the musical side of its theatrical program with "Sundance… Sings!" The one-night-only show features performances of songs from many of these shows by a phalanx of top Broadway talent including Christine Ebersole (Blithe Spirit, Grey Gardens, 42nd Street), Krysta Rodriguez (In the Heights, First Date, TV's Smash), Aaron Tveit (Wicked, Next to Normal, Catch Me If You Can), Joshua Henry (American Idiot, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess), Ann Harada (Avenue Q, Les Misérables, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella), Annie Golden (Hair, The Full Monty, Violet) and many more.
Philip Himberg, Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, took some time to speak with us about "Sundance… Sings!" and the past, present and future of the extensive Theatre Program that the concert honors.
Classicalite: Sundance founder Robert Redford got his start in theater, including Broadway. Was theater development part of his vision for Sundance all along?
Philip Himberg: The Theatre Program was part of Robert Redford’s founding vision for Sundance Institute, and our Theatre Lab was created in the 1980s along with the film programs. He understood the importance of supporting independent artists across different disciplines, and since then Sundance Institute has expanded to include support for artists working in episodic television and online projects and New Frontier.
CL: You've said the program exists "to support, nurture, encourage, and champion the risk-taking independent theatre artist." But creating any new play, and especially a new musical, involves "risk-taking." So how does Sundance choose projects to get behind?
Certainly any artist must be courageous to present their story and characters to audiences. There are particular challenges, however, as an "independent artist," working outside the commercial system. Sundance Theatre "Fellows" often attempt to break traditional forms or experiment with material that lies outside the mainstream.
We look for unique points of view, or unheard voices. Examples include I Am My Own Wife, the story about an East German transvestite who survives the Nazi and Stasi occupation of her country, and Grey Gardens, a re-interpretation of a documentary film.
On site at the lab, we make mentors available to these generating artists, dramaturgs with whom they can consult as needed when reshaping their work. These are very valuable and exceedingly rare opportunities for independent artists
CL: Are there any projects in the works now that you're especially excited about? Either brand new projects, or shows that have had substantial development and may be headed for big things?
Last year was a bit of a banner season for projects we supported, as 14 new projects took to stages across America. Aside from the success of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder which won the Tony for Best Musical, Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron also premiered in New York last year and will move to Broadway this spring.
Last year we supported Michael John LaChiusa with his new musical, First Daughters Suite, which will premiere in New York in the seasons ahead, and Iowa by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond is opening this season at Playwrights Horizons. I also look forward to Doug Wright's Posterity at the Atlantic Theatre Company and Lemon Andersen's Toast at the Public Theater.
CL: And what about outside the U.S., with the International Initiative?
We've been working for the past 13 years to support international theatre artists in East Africa, where we provide opportunities for deep peer-to-peer intercultural engagement. So far we've been in six East African countries, where we've sponsored workshops and held residency labs, just as we do in the U.S. Many of these artists have also visited our Utah program. We are currently beginning work in the Middle East and North Africa, and have welcomed artists from Lebanon and Egypt to the U.S.
CL: Have you staged "Sundance… Sings!" or similar events before?
We have had some modest public programming at BAM years ago, but this is our first "Sundance… Sings!" event. It's part of our recently expanded efforts to connect audiences in New York with what's been brewing at our residency programs over the last decade and a half.
We'll also host a work-in-progress reading of Sandra Tsing Loh's The Madwoman in the Volvo at 92Y on October 10, as well as a salon series with IDEO and NeueHouse which kicks off on November 5. Our Theatre Club hosts dinners with artists as well as outings to new theatre productions throughout the year.
CL: And what do you hope will come out of the September 29 show in New York? Is it a fundraiser, a celebration, a showcase? Some or all of the above?
"Sundance… Sings!" is not a gala. It is presented by Symphony Space and reflects a body of work developed under our auspices since 1997. We are grateful to the many great playwrights, composers and lyricists who have allowed us to be part of their creative journeys from page to stage over the years. Our hope is that the audience begins to understand the process of developing new work and will see projects they know and love, as well as discover others yet to be produced. We are hugely grateful to the many fantastic artists who are lending their work and their talents to this evening.
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