Maybe it is our dramatic Wyoming landscape, or the occasionally theatrical weather, but the art of drama really thrives at Ucross. Our artist residency program holds a special magic for contemporary playwrights and theater composers. Since 2000, we have begun each new year with a theater-focused residency organized in collaboration with the Sundance Institute.
Numerous award-winning plays and musicals have emerged from these February retreats — including “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” “I Am My Own Wife” and “The Light in the Piazza.” We’ve just welcomed an exciting new group for the 21st annual Sundance Institute Artist Residency at Ucross.
Our support of playwrights continues to build. We recently began a new partnership with Houston’s acclaimed Alley Theatre, a Tony Award-winning theater that has its own acting company and is one of America’s leading nonprofit theaters. Our collaboration, called Alley at Ucross, provides five playwrights with two weeks of focused writing time each fall. (They join five other artists working in various disciplines in residence at Ucross.)
The first Alley at Ucross group came to Wyoming last October. This year, Ucross Program Director Tracey Kikut and I had the opportunity to travel to Houston for the fifth annual Alley All New Festival, which presents new plays very early in the process of creation. As the Alley’s Artistic Director Rob Melrose put it, “You are seeing plays today that your friends will be talking about two years from now.”
We were especially thrilled to see the work of two writers who participated in the first Alley at Ucross last October: Vichet Chum and Arthur Jolly. Vichet Chum is a Cambodian-American playwright originally from Dallas, now living in New York City. His new play is called “High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest” and is set in Plano, Texas around 2003. The idea for the play came to him after he had seen a Broadway revival of “Six Degrees of Separation.” The experience triggered forgotten memories of what happened when that same play was to be performed when Vichet was in high school. At the reading in Houston, “High School Play” had the audience roaring with laughter and then weeping with tenderness at the plight of the high school students and their families.
Playwright Arthur Jolly had an early career as a stunt man in films and then spent eight years as a helicopter pilot, training pilots for the U.S. Army and flying tourists into the Grand Canyon. For the past 15 years, he has focused entirely on writing, and has now written more than 70 plays that have been produced around the world. His new work was featured in the Alley All New festival’s “Early Draft Preview.”
Liz Frankel, the Alley’s Director of New Work, interviewed Arthur on-stage. He then read a portion of his play-in-progress, which involves the true story of the mysterious 10-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926. (This led to the largest manhunt in UK history and included fellow mystery writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers.) Arthur and his work were a huge hit in Houston. One person asked him, “Have you ever wanted to disappear?” He replied, “Yes! I’ve been thinking of disappearing back to Ucross — maybe they wouldn’t notice me for a while.”
We were also thrilled to see new work by acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck — one of the most produced female playwrights working today. Theresa was part of a Sundance Institute Playwrights Retreat at Ucross several years ago. All in all, our time spent at the Alley Theatre was completely energizing.
It gave us even more appreciation of what it takes for a play to make it from an original idea to its final form on stage. We’re thrilled to be working with both the Alley Theatre and the Sundance Institute, in support of such brilliant creators.
Sharon Dynak is president of the Ucross Foundation.