Storytelling without borders as the Sundance Institute Theatre Program comes to NYUAD

For the first time in three decades, the Sundance Institute Theatre Program this year held its prestigious playwriting workshop in an inaugural Middle East and North Africa Theatre Lab, in Marrakech.
Artists at work in Marrakech in May. Courtesy Sundance Institute.
Artists at work in Marrakech in May. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

This year, something rather extraordinary happened in world of American theatre. A major creative nexus shifted east, when, for the first time in 30 years, the Sundance Institute Theatre Program rolled its prestigious playwriting workshop, normally held every July at Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in Utah, into the inaugural Middle East and North Africa Theatre Lab, at a hotel just outside Marrakech.

The Mena initiative marks the next phase of the Sundance Institute’s commitment to supporting theatre-practitioners outside the United States, by mentoring talent to create innovative work for local audiences. It also gives American artists exposure to different ideas, explains Philip Himberg, artistic director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, who is taking part in the panel discussion Sundance: A Global Platform for the World’s Storytellers at New York University Abu Dhabi Institute on Sunday night.

The Sundance Institute Theatre Program has an extraordinary track record in helping playwrights to develop scripts for the stage: 90 per cent what is worked upon through Sundance is in production in the US within two years, among them Tony Award winners. The success of its alumni from its global projects is equally impressive.

Himberg has been leading Sundance’s theatre programme for the past 20 years and initiated its expansion, first into central and eastern Europe and then into East Africa 15 years ago. “One of the things I noticed about the American artists who were participating in our developmental theatre labs was that they were vastly isolated, as many Americans are, from things happening outside US borders,” he tells me. “They were incredibly bright, curious, talented, intelligent, creative beings but it seemed to stop at the edges of America ... The first impulse to do any cultural exchange with other theatre practitioners was really born out of that.”

The East African Theatre Exchange, as it became known, welcomed playwrights from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and eventually included participants from Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia; all countries experiencing enormous social and political upheaval and were home to artists writing about the trauma. Himberg proceeded cautiously. As he says: “There have been legions of well-meaning Europeans and sometimes Americans – mostly Europeans – who have gone to Africa with great intentions, and kind of swoop in and share their methodology, or provide workshops to ‘help’ people, and we are not one of those. We wanted to come in as peers; we are [about] peer-to-peer mentorship.”

The actors, dramaturgs and established artists invited to mentor the selected playwrights and to help develop their ideas were African and American, but, unusually for a programme funded by a western organisation, English was not the lingua franca.

“The goals of most of these artists was not to perform in London, the goal was to perform in their communities, so we supported them in that,” says Himberg. “I believe that you write in the language that you dream so we were very clear that language would never be a barrier.”

More than a decade later and the Kampala International Theatre Festival, which was established by alumni from the East African Theatre Exchange, is now in its third year and welcoming both local and international artists. Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe, festival co-director, will join Himberg at NYUAD to talk about the impact of the Sundance programme in East Africa, along with the Lebanon-based writer and dramaturg Chrystèle Khodr. Both attended the Marrakech workshop as mentors and advisors in May.

That 20-day lab was the product of months of conversations, research and visits to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt. It brought 30 artists from the region together with an American peer group along with eight nascent works – four from American playwrights and four from Morrocco, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq – which were all brought closer to production.

Himberg describes it as a “life-changing” experience. He cites the example of Syrian actors playing parts in the Korean-American play Wild Goose Dreams by Hansol Jung, struck by common experiences of grief, loss and exile. And a Palestinian woman moved to tears over Eve’s Song, a play about Black Lives Matter and familial loss written from the perspective of African-American women by Patricia Ione Lloyd. “She said to me, ‘I did not know this happens in your country.’”

Catherine Coray, an associate arts professor at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, and head of the theatre programme at NYUAD, will be moderating the discussion. She is looking forward to introducing its work to an international audience of students, academics and the public who may not be familiar with theatre from the Arab world.

In addition to describing the workings of the labs, Himberg hopes to answer some of the “deeper philosophical questions” that arise from telling stories across cultures with vastly different storytelling traditions but always with one aim: “To tell the best story, the most powerful story, the most revealing story.”

Sundance: A Global Platform for the World’s Storytellers will take place on Sunday from 6.30 to 8pm at the Conference Centre on NYUAD’s Saadiyat campus. To register, visit

Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.

Published: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM


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