For three weeks in July, Undermain Theatre
's artistic director, Katherine Owens, was shuttling between a rehearsal hall and a luxurious mountain home, where she roomed with a handful of nationally renowned theater artists. Owens was there as part of Sundance Institute's Theatre Lab to work alongside Len Jenkin in the development of his play, Jonah, which will premiere as part of Undermain's 2015-16 season. Theirs was one of nine projects being workshopped, rewritten, and rehearsed at one of the few theater incubators in the country. Shows previously worked on at the program include the Tony Award-winners, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
and Fun Home.
This year, Owens and Jenkin worked alongside contemporary theater greats including Rachel Chavkin and Taylor Mac, and they fit right in. We spent a few minutes with Owens this week to chat about the experience.
What does the Sundance experience look like on its feet?
You can use the time for anything you want. You can read at the table for three weeks and present it at music stancs, you can get it up at its feet, which we thought would be the most important thing. Sundance is driven a lot by the playwrights. It was sort of about what [Len] wanted to see. They cast the shows for you, we selected two people and the rest of the people you share with the other shows. You bring your creative team if you have it. And you work with them for three weeks on the play, there are rewrites, you see the presentations of all the projects.
What is the day-to-day of being there?
We lived in these mountain homes, there’s a resort where everything takes place, a lot of tourists are there too. There were about 60 of us total. We get up in the morning, and you catch the shuttle, down the resort and have breakfast rehears
e all morning, break for lunch and then rehearse all afternoon. In the evenings you either have a presentation by one of the fellows or you maybe see a movie. A lot of times after the nightly presentation, you would go to the bar and have a drink.The cast is on everyday, but if you're directing, you and the playwright have every other day off, but the day that we’re off were the most important days to us. We would very carefully plan what we would work through the next day.
Tell us a little bit about the play you were working on, Jonah.
It’s a Len Jenkin play, I’m a huge fan of Len, i think he’s the great poet of American theater. And Jonah
is actually a story that exists in several cultures – a very broad story that has a lot of different constituencies. So that story is combined with a biblical scholar who has a stroke and the story of Jonah is washing around in his mind. Len is also very interested in Melville, so it has a lot of the sea, and speeches of the sea, and then, of course he’s got a lot of Americana. And then it also has the sense of the Medieval mystery play. The Sundance people thought it was beautiful.
What kind of changes were y'all able to make to the show?
Usually if I take on a play, I think the play could be produced in the condition it’s in. So, it's up to the playwright. He made quite a few changes, but some of them are small, some of them were larger, some of them were scenes. After Sundance, we knew so much about the play, we knew what the characters were like, we knew what the issues were, we tried things we would’ve had tried in rehearsal.
It sounds like the ideal way to begin working through a new play.
The setting is just incredibly beautiful. But really what we had was three weeks to think about it. Len was saying, we should try to hold onto the things that we liked that were details. We learned about the rhythm of the play, the detail. It has a different tone than some of the other plays he’s done. I know so much more about it now and it’s changed. And we’ve had the conversations that we would have been having in the context of rehearsal. And now we have time to sit with it.
Jonah will premiere at Undermain Theatre April 13- May 7, 2016. More information at undermaintheatre.org.