An Act of Hospitality: The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in North Africa

The venue for the 2016 Theatre Lab in MENA.

Philip Himberg

The upcoming season at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program is unprecedented and excites us as never before. For over three decades we have hosted our centerpiece Theatre Lab against the majesty of Mount Timpanogos, at the Sundance Resort in Utah. As I write, my staff and I are deep in conversation about how we will bring to life an entirely new iteration of this developmental workshop: our 2016 Theatre Lab will be a marriage of our U.S. and International activities–an American and Middle East/North African joint Theatre Lab outside Marrakech, Morocco next May. The questions? How will we bridge ideologies, languages, methods, and widely different means of expression? How will we honor each other and step across the perimeters of our cultures to embrace each other?

Now–and every single day–we arise to read the stories of the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these stories break hearts, and it is impossible to deny that a great deal of the pain and suffering in this region is the direct result of political and military interventions by our own government. The huge refugee populations moving with great hope toward new horizons also comprise many artists. While in the past, I would have made a space for “international” alongside our “American” workshops, I found myself suddenly eager to take a much larger leap. Why not combine our flagship three-week Lab into one experience? How exciting it might be to host a working Lab on foreign soil, where one half of the participants are American playwrights and the other artists from the Middle East and North Africa are working in Arabic. What potentially could we learn about each other? What phenomenal challenges will force us to think differently about our storytelling?

The concept of defying limits and “crossing borders” has defined much of my personal and professional life. Growing up gay in the 1960’s at a time when “culture” tried to define “my place” ended up propelling me into parenthood in 1990 – a reality that a gay teenager of that era could hardly have imagined. Being one of the earlier pioneers in this realm never felt courageous (as some have proposed), because crossing a boundary was for some reason quite natural to me. The ‘other’ has always beckoned.

Theatre Program Artistic Director Philip Himberg with theatre artist Liesl
Tommy at the Theatre Lab. ©Sundance Institute | Fred Hayes

Professionally, I began my life in the theatre at a young age, only later to embrace a 12-year career as a doctor of Chinese Medicine (during the height of the AIDS crisis), and subsequently, when the opportunity arose to re-connect myself with supporting American playwrights, I joined Sundance Institute and re-invented yet another new chapter of employment.

My theatrical work reveals a parallel journey. Though trained in the 1970’s in avant-garde modalities (Grotowski, Artaud, Peter Brook), I nevertheless and at the same time embraced the tradition of the great American musicals and well-made, text-based drama. Unwilling to cloister myself inside one vein of theatrical illustration, I sometimes frustrated colleagues on both sides of the equation.

In my early years at Sundance Institute, I became perilously aware that most American theatre-makers had little exposure to international work and were moreover not particularly curious to know more. For myself, as well as my comrades, I felt it was my duty to facilitate more exposure to work outside of the U.S. Early in the life of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, we welcomed burgeoning talent from the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Hungary to observe and participate in our developmental Labs in Utah. In 2005 we brought Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife, developed at the Theatre Lab, to Krakow, Poland, under the direction of Moisés Kaufman and starring Jefferson Mays. There, audiences stood, cheered and thanked us for “bringing [their] history home.”

And then by serendipity came the invitation to visit East Africa–not a place on the world map I had considered visiting, but soon the countries and artists of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Burundi beckoned us to create deep and powerful exchange. For nearly 15 years, Sundance Institute worked with theatre-makers from this corner of the world, even creating three residency Labs on islands in the Indian Ocean to provide time and space for adventurous East Africans to make new work – alongside their American counterparts.

And so, the 2016 Theatre Lab in MENA is born. Before us there are dozens of questions. Questions about translation, everyday communication, submission process, selection, structure, dramaturgy and social interaction. To some, these are frames, and margins and peripheries. For us at Sundance Institute, they are all opportunities. I want our theatre to be openly borderless. As one of our Middle East colleagues articulated: “There is a cultural value of translation: it is an act of hospitality, the opposite of invasion.”

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