If you felt a little poetry blowing in the fall winds last week, it might be because in Water Mill there was a playwright/screenwriter laboratory, featuring some of the nation’s top talent, right under our noses.The inaugural Theatre Alumni Writing Studio at Flying Point is a week-long retreat launched by the California-based Sundance Institute. Best known for its annual film festival and Robert Redford provenance, the Sundance Institute also has, since 1997, sponsored a Theatre Program that encompasses labs and workshops at the Sundance Resort in Utah, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, while simultaneously reaching as far as Africa with a 12-year initiative that aims to develop local writers from Zanzibar, Uganda and Liberia, in conjunction with American talent.
The list of theater productions that has sprung from the Sundance Institute reads like a condensed history of American theater over the last two decades: “Spring Awakening” by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater; “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman; “Some Men” by Terrence McNally; and “Passing Strange” by Stew, Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen—just a few of the works even a theater philistine recognizes from the dozens of produced titles.
But for some reason, Mr. Redford and his institute had not made their way out to the Hamptons. As Philip Himberg, the program’s artistic director, noted on site, “The last time the Sundance Theatre Program and the Hamptons were uttered in the same breath, it was at our 2004 Theatre Lab at White Oak [in Florida], where the astonishing collaborative team of Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright were inventing the first incarnation ever of the musical ‘Grey Gardens.’
“In the middle of her song, the divine Christine Ebersole, as Little Edie, indelibly utters the line: ‘They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday. Did you know that? It’s a mean, nasty, Republican town.’”
That was 10 years before Joan and George Hornig threw open the doors to their Water Mill estate for the inaugural Sundance Institute Theatre Alumni Writing Studio last month. Five fellows, all previous attendees of a prior theater lab, were invited, along with Mr. Himberg and Producing Director Christopher Hibma, to spend a week collaborating, beach walking, running lines, sharing meals and complaining about their agents. You know—playwright heaven.
A highlight of the retreat was a works-in-progress set of readings on October 27, which, while dazzling, alas, can’t be described here. “You know how writers are. We are so paranoid that someone is going to steal our ideas,” said Christopher Shinn, whose September 11th-referenced work, “Where Do We Live,” won an Obie award, and whose day job is heading up the playwriting department at the New School for Drama in Manhattan.
So, no note-taking allowed during the presentation. But can I sneak in that the readings were complexly diverse, some sexy, some unsettling, and all riveting? Let’s chance it.
The Hornigs’ compound was the perfect setting, with a ramble of guest cottages, a sculpture garden and, perhaps most importantly, an in-residence philanthropist, Joan Hornig herself.
“There is just not nearly enough theater culture out here. Think of it: We are 70 miles from Broadway, and we have Guild Hall and Bay Street and a few tiny, local productions,” Ms. Hornig observed. “We need to invest in the culture of theater out here. It is so desperately needed.”
The readings and a dinner that followed in the Hornigs’ massive art barn was a way to introduce the program to the local theater-supporting community, and to announce that a spring Writing Studio will also be held at Flying Point. “We’re committed to doing this as often as Sundance would like,” Ms. Hornig explained.
The five playwrights sat down for a stylish and cozy dinner among a smattering of industry professionals, journalists and East End locals, reflecting on their week spent on the East End. While there was some late-night Ping-Pong, the sole female fellow—“In the spring, we’re having more women,” Mr. Himberg promised—and her four counterparts, who included Mr. Shinn, Dan LeFranc, José Rivera and David Cale, were there to work, she said.
“Everyone kind of just picked out a writing space,” Ms. Thomas said. “I chose this chair near the fireplace. It was so comfortable. Was it the easiest chair to type in? No, but once I settled in, there was no moving me.”
Her fascinating life began as a diplomat’s child. Her father was the Ambassador to Liberia, ousted during a bloody 1980 coup d’etat. “I was a student at Sarah Lawrence [College] when it happened,” she said. “We lost everything. At that time, Sarah Lawrence was one of the single most expensive private colleges in the country. So I had to drop out.”
Later, her father told her he wanted to revisit the school he had built, the Lott Carey Mission in Brewerville, Liberia. While on that trip, Ms. Thomas was shot at by a child soldier, which she recounted in her drama “Pa’s Hat.” She later returned to Liberia to bury her father there and founded the Pa’s Hat Foundation, which helps promote arts and education in Liberia, where illiteracy rates are still 70 percent.
Listening to Ms. Thomas cheerfully recount her colorful and dangerous life, one can’t help but be excited about her next autobiographical Liberia-based play, written worlds away from a wing chair in the Hamptons.
For more information on the Sundance Institute, visit sundance.org.