After You've Gone: The O'Neill Center Blues
Since the late Lloyd Richards left the Eugene O'Neill Center, its centerpiece--the National Playwrights Conference--just hasn't been the same. Partly, one assumes, the turmoil is due to funding setbacks that were already taking a toll in 1991, when I spent a couple of weeks there. And partly it now seems to me because the people running it have lost Lloyd Richards' vision.
This is about the time of year that the conference happens. It's four weeks in July, when a dozen or more playwrights would work with professional directors, dramaturgs, designers and actors, many of them coming up from New York City. (My article about the O'Neill for Smithsonian magazine is reproduced here in somewhat expanded form.)
They've had a couple of artistic directors since Richards' retired, at least one of them leaving under a cloud. Last month--well before Lloyd Richards died--the new artistic director, 31 year old Wendy Goldberg, gave an interview in American Theatre. Her quotes, and some statements in the story which seem to be based on impressions and information the writer got from her, suggests how far the O'Neill has strayed, and for my money, fallen.
For four decades, the O'Neill had a policy of open submissions: anybody could send a script and it would be considered. Without such a policy, it's doubtful that many if not most of the new voices the O'Neill discovered and nurtured would have had a chance, and that seems especially true for its most important discovery: August Wilson.
A few years ago, the new regime tried to change that, and limit submissions to pre-selected playwrights. There was a hue and cry and unsolicited scripts were again considered, though in a narrower time frame, and with conditions that made entering a pretty pricey proposition. Goldberg reinstated open submissions, and though I don't know the exact rules and regs this year, statements that she makes in the interview suggest the situation hasn't really returned to what it was.
"We've had 800 submissions this year, a record amount of plays," Goldberg is quoted as saying. First of all, unless she is judging them by weight, she probably meant "a record number of plays." But even that is simply false, and by quite a lot. There were some 1500 scripts submitted for the 1991 conference, according to Lloyd Richards, and confirmed by others that summer.
There were also 12 playwrights chosen for 1991, although I believe they had previously hosted 14, but budget shortfalls forced both fewer playwrights and an altered schedule--the pre-conference in the spring, during which the playwrights spend a couple of days simply each reading their plays aloud, had to be folded into the summer conference.
But the conference in 2006 will host but eight playwrights, and one of them did not emerge from the regular submissions process. Moreover, this play will be "workshopped" before a scheduled production in Atlanta, something that Richards' resisted. He didn't want the O'Neill to become a venue tied to specific productions elsewhere. The O'Neill was about the playwright and the play, and nothing else.
That clearly is no longer true. Goldberg had done away with the system Richards instituted (and which other places copied) of simple, modular sets and basic production values, and script-in-hand performance, so that playwrights could change things right up to the minute of production, based on what they learned in their creative collaboration with all the others involved. Goldberg says that "each play is different" which is a truism but also signifies the distinct possibility that some plays are going to be favored in light of imminent productions elsewhere.
The critique system Richards set up is also slandered in the article, as some sort of vicious punishment visited upon the victimized playwright. I don't know what they were like in later years, but when I was there, Richards himself made sure these sessions were positive. He spoke before every one of them, about their purpose and how they fit into the larger purpose of the conference.
Through design and through his presence, authority and leadership, Lloyd Richards created a sense of the process as almost sacred, as touching the foundations of theatre and theatrical creativity and collaboration. It's no coincidence that one 1991 actor who did a lot of TV playing cops and criminals (an awful lot of O'Neill actors show up in episodes of Law & Order, a series co-created by an O'Neill playwright) described his participation as "renewing my vows."
The O'Neill was so important to so many people in the theatre, and so treasured, because it was a kind of temporary monastery (with a lot of un-monklike--or nunlike--behavior, to be sure) for the kind of pure creative process that the theatre needs. If it has succumbed to whatever pressures and necessities, or to poor judgment, then theatre will suffer for it, and so will playwrights.
And while a new generation of administrators has every right to their own vision, and certainly a responsibility to respond to today's realities, they might try respecting what made the O'Neill a living legend in world theatre. And the people who created it.