Theater Professor Puts Pen to Paper at Playwright’s Retreat

Posted: March 15, 2010 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: March 11, 2010 at 5:18 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Heather McDonald. Photo courtesy of Heather McDonald

Nestled in the hills of a 20,000-acre ranch in northeastern Wyoming lies a secluded haven where creative artists can work uninterrupted on their crafts. It is here where works such as Annie Proulx’s book, “The Shipping News,” and Adam Guettel’s musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” were penned.

It is also where Heather McDonald, Mason professor of theater, spent several weeks in February honing her talent as a playwright.

McDonald was one of eight artists – six playwrights and two composers – from across the country invited to attend one of the many residency programs offered by the Ucross Foundation.

In partnership with the Sundance Institute, the Sundance Institute Playwright’s Retreat in Wyoming offers the gift of time and space to competitively selected individuals working in all artistic disciplines.

“Participating in the residency program and being surrounded by such quality artists was an enlightening and spiritual experience,” says McDonald.

“Having that much solitude gave me the time to not only work on several projects, but also to reflect on my writing and other parts of my life. It was refreshing to be in a comfortable and productive environment where I was freed from the distractions of daily life.”

While the group’s members ate some of their meals together and slept in the main house, most of their time was spent in private studios scattered throughout the property. For McDonald, each day began with a 20-minute walk to her studio space, which she shared with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright.

After enjoying a lunch served at her door, she spent her days writing and hiking through the mountains. The social event of each day was a group dinner. During dinner, the artists shared their experiences and some of the things on which they were working. Outings to nearby cities were scheduled each week as well.

McDonald (center, back row) with some of the participants at the Sundance Institute Playwright's Retreat. Photo courtesy of Heather McDonald

One of the projects on which McDonald worked was her play commissioned from Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., titled “The Suppressed Desire Ball.” The play is set on an island off the coast of Scotland on Dec. 21, the longest day and darkest night of the year. It focuses on a group of lost travelers who have landed on the island and how they get through the Christmas season.

McDonald also worked on a new piece titled “Stay” on which she is collaborating with Susan Shields, associate professor of dance. For the past few months, the pair has been creating vignettes that focus on the recurring theme of wanting something or someone to stay. Some sections of the piece will be told through language and others will be told through dance.

During the residency, McDonald met several artists whose work she admires. She is interested in inviting them to perform their works at Theater of the First Amendment, Mason’s professional theater company.

“Although it was shocking to return to the daily grind after three weeks of intense focus, I believe that the experiences I had and the relationships I formed are invaluable and will have a powerful effect not only on my professional work, but also on my work in the classroom,” says McDonald.

As organizations dedicated to fostering and developing independent artists, the Sundance Institute and the Ucross Foundation began a partnership in 1999. Since then, the Ucross Foundation has been providing living accommodations, individual work space and uninterrupted time to approximately 85 individuals each year.

At any one time, there are up to nine artists working in different disciplines in residence together. Residencies range from two to eight weeks. Participants are chosen by a panel of professionals in the arts and humanities in a highly competitive application process. The program includes both emerging and established artists, creating an environment of peer mentorship and professional growth.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu