NORTH ADAMS -- On the upper floors of Mass MoCA, in its studios, meeting rooms, and hallways, there is the buzz of a different kind of artistic creation. On an afternoon last week, there were the sounds of a musical getting ironed out coming from the studio, while in the hallway two guys rearranged a stack of post-it notes as they mapped out an opera, and a few feet away two members of a New York theater company huddled over a MacBook and quietly talked out their script.
They've come to North Adams from all over the country for a two-week "lab," organized by the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, an arm of the arts nonprofit founded by Robert Redford which is best known for its annual film festival in Utah, and is dedicated to "advancing the work of risk-taking storytellers."
Usually the work Sundance does in its labs stays quiet and closed to the public, a part of the long and hard work that goes into bringing something to the stage. But this time they're letting the public get a peek with a sort of open rehearsal of one of its projects, which will take place on Saturday in Club B-10.
Philip Himberg, artistic director of the Sundance Institute Theatre program, said this performance was an exception. "We love Mass MoCA, and this is a way to give back," he said.
The show will be part of a work-in-progress by five-time Tony Award nominated composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, and directed by Kirsten Sanderson. "First Daughter Suite" looks at moments in mother-daughter relationships at the White House, and features an all-woman cast and a text that is nearly completely sung.
The program runs a series of similar labs around the world. The main event is a three-week program in July at the Sundance Ranch in Utah, but smaller ones include a writer's workshop in Wyoming, one for directors in the south of France, and another held in on the island of Zanzibar -- this year's edition wrapped up only last week, and Himberg wrote this lab's welcome letter sitting on the shore of the Indian Ocean.
"We don't produce theater, we just offer support and development in the early stages," Himberg said in an interview. "We're very good at creating that environment, creatively and physically."
MoCA first hosted a lab three years ago, thanks to a connection between Sundance and Rachel Chanoff, MoCA's curator of performing arts.
Sue Killam, MoCA's managing director of performing arts, said MoCA can offer the right mix of getting artists away from their ordinary environment with the stimulation of cutting edge visual arts. "We're removed enough that they can focus on their projects," she said. "But they love having a museum around them."
Altogether there are four projects at Mass MoCA this month. In addition to workspace, the participants stay at the Porches, eat their meals together, and work with visiting dramaturgs and creative advisers.
Also at MoCA for the lab are members of Fiasco Theater, a New York-based company that made waves a few years ago with a production of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."
"They're a terrific young company that takes created texts and does their own versions," Himberg said. Here, they are working for the first time on their own projects. "We like when artists stretch beyond their fingertips," he said.
Also at work in the galleries is Sandra Tsing Loh, a writer and frequent NPR contributor who is working to adapt her memoir of menopause, "The Madwomen in the Volvo," for the stage. "[Her work] is funny on the one hand, and devastating on the other," Himberg said.
The fourth fellows is the opera-writing team of composer Byron Au Yong and writer Aaron Jafferis, who are working the second in a trilogy of operas. The first, "Stuck Elevator," is based on the true story of a Chinese food deliveryman who was stuck in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours. It premiered in San Francisco last year.
Himberg said the fellows are usually chosen from the pool of applicants for the main lab in the summer.
"We want to open the door for new artists, and if I lose sleep it's because I'm afraid I'll miss something," Himberg said. At the same time, there is a desire to provide a sort of "home" for artists through their career. "You can be any age and still need a place to workshop your piece."
Himberg said that is part of the "generous spirit" of the Institute. "We don't care about the project, we care about the artist," he said. "Success is the artist coming out on the other end saying this was exhilarating."