Saturday, July 08, 2006

likely taken at the O'Neill. Posted by Picasa
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.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lloyd Richards Posted by Picasa
R.I. P. Lloyd Richards

I met Lloyd Richards, and though I spent only a few hours talking with him, I observed him over the course of a couple of weeks, and learned a lot about him from others. I didn't know however that our birthdays were one day apart. I found out just now, reading his obituary in the New York Times. He died on June 29, his 87th birthday.

Richards directed the first New York production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in 1957, arguably the first authentic portrayal of African American life on the American stage. It was a classic when I read it in high school in the early 60s. But in his years of directing and discovering and nurturing playwrights of all races, his most important find was August Wilson, a great American playwright, who created the richest and most sustained expression of African American life in the twentieth century.

Only hours ago I opened a box of books one of my sisters sent for my birthday--an August Wilson play, an August Wilson essay, and a book on August Wilson (all from my Amazon Wish List.) Richards was instrumental in Wilson's career, and I met them both on the same day (July 1, a day after my birthday in 1991) at the Eugene O'Neill Center summer playwrights conference, where they had begun working together. It was Richards who picked out the manuscript for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" from the thousand or so that came to the O'Neill, brought the unknown Pittsburgh playwright to Waterford to work on the play, and then mounted its first productions at Yale and in New York.

Lloyd Richards was the heart and soul of the O'Neill, so important to many American playwrights. He transformed it into a community concentrating on honing and freeing new voices in theatre. He was utterly respected by everyone, for his discipline and gentleness, his rigor and humor, his attentiveness to detail and insistence on communicating the big picture, so everyone knew and shared the same vision of the O'Neill process. It hasn't been the same since he retired from being its artistic director.August Wilson died last year, and so the two giants of African American theatre are gone.

And to think just minutes ago I was ordering the last play I haven't read (apart from the one I just got) in Wilson's titanic ten play cycle, one for each decade of the twentieth century. That cycle is a truly stunning achievement, and Richards was part of getting many of those plays to their staged versions. I was looking forward to reading them all in the order of decades. Then minutes later I happened to read this. Of course, it's not as shocking as August Wilson's death at age 61. But it is another indication of an era passing. These two men have left such an incredible legacy to America and theatre everywhere.