The crisp white paper between Lynn Nottage’s fingers trembled slightly as she took the makeshift center stage.“I am going to read a piece,” she started. “I’ve written about faraway places and I’ve spent a lot of time doing research. And then someone said, ‘Why don’t you ever write about yourself, why don’t you ever write close to home?’ So, maybe a year and a half ago, I decided I was going to do much more personal writing.”
She paused and smiled, nervously tucking a few loose braids behind her ear before grasping the pages with both hands once more.
“So this is a personal piece,” she continued. “It’s always scary to me to read it out loud because it’s my voice, as opposed to the voice of one of my characters. This is a true story. And it’s called ‘Pilgrims.’”
The crowd of 40 settled deeper into the comfy couches and chairs intimately gathered inside George and Joan Hornig’s massive art barn in Water Mill, home to a weeklong retreat launched last October by the California-based Sundance Institute.
Better known for its annual film festival founded by Robert Redford, the Sundance Institute also has, since 1997, sponsored a theater program that encompasses labs and workshops across the country, and as far as Africa and the Middle East. Considered by some to be the stepchild of the Sundance Institute, the second Theatre Alumni Writing Studio at Flying Point last week felt anything but.
Five fellows, all previous attendees of a prior theater lab, banded together for seven days of collaboration, running lines and shared meals, slipping out to the local beaches when they could. By the end, playwrights Adam Bock, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Liz Flahive, Ellen McLaughlin and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ms. Nottage each had a solid work-in-progress—one that, perhaps, would have been near impossible to complete within their day-to-day routines, which Ms. Hornig asked each writer to describe.
Mr. Bock started off the discussion, without hesitation.
“A huge part of my life is, every day, going to the grocery store,” Mr. Bock explained before sitting down for a buffet-style dinner with industry professionals, artists, journalists and East End locals. “What I’m gonna cook, what I’m gonna eat. I’m a hideous person when it comes to food because I do a version of the Paleo Diet.”
He continued to describe, in great detail, his experience eating gravy for the first time in six months, thanks to the on-site chef who substituted beans for flour.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “So that’s a huge part of my life …”
Ms. Hornig interrupted. “Okay, but like, do you teach …?” She paused as the group laughed. “We know you eat, we know you’re not dead on the floor.”
“I eat, I go to the gym, I talk on the phone, I sit and read things on the internet,” he said, unfazed. “I teach every now and then, but I live in Hell’s Kitchen, so there’s noise all the time, something to do all the time.
“I will vacuum instead of write, I will make my bed instead of write. I will get an extra haircut instead of write,” he continued. “I will do anything instead of write. So here, I couldn’t even figure out how to work the TV, so I guess I should write. But that’s not what you wanted to hear.”
“No, but that’s what you wanted to share, so that’s alright,” Ms. Hornig said.
The decision to, literally, host the theater lab in their backyard was a simple one, she explained before the reading. It is a chance to touch history, she said, as the list of productions that have sprung from the Sundance Institute include “Spring Awakening” by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater; “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman; “Some Men” by Terrence McNally; and “The Light in the Piazza” by Adam Guettel and Craig Luca—just a few titles among the 40 Tony winners and 108 nods over the last two decades.
“I think that everything has an objective, and the objective at Sundance is something that is so unique. The theater lab program is really about supporting the artists and all of the people across the board—but not the money-making people, not the producers,” Ms. Hornig said. “This is about the people who make things in our lives clearer and better because they have the voice, they have the wisdom and they have the skill set that most of us don’t have. And so we’re very, very grateful to them.
“I ask one thing of them. I ask that they be comfortable and well cared for. I don’t bother them because I don’t come out,” she laughed. “I ask them to be a voice for the whole program. Nothing had to be finished. I gave them no assignments, Sundance gave them no assignments. This was their time to use.”
Mr. Bock worked on his newest play, “A Life,” centered on middle-aged Nick Martin, who is trying to understand why his boyfriend, Mark, just broke his heart. He ran through an abridged version of the 10-scene play, written with his close friend, actor Jason Butler Harner, in mind for the lead.
“I’ll send it to different theaters in New York,” Mr. Bock said. “My dream is to actually see Jason do it. He’s got this wonderful funniness, but also sorrow, inside of him.”
Ms. Cowhig and Ms. McLaughlin also presented their works-in-progress—the former wrote about a young migrant girl and her journey from the Chinese countryside into the city; the latter adapted a Greek play about Helen of Troy. And Ms. Nottage, whose play “Ruined”—which is set in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo—won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, used her time to get in touch with her personal side, which cannot be described here.
What can be said is one minute from the end of her reading, a woman in the audience breathed out an audible gasp, like taking a emotional punch to the gut. Ms. Nottage felt it too.
“I’m sorry,” she choked up, wiping away a tear streaming down her cheek. She uttered the last sentence through a sob, the audience hanging onto her last word before exploding into applause.
For more information on the Sundance Institute, visit sundance.org.