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50 Years of bringing new work to life

Thank goodness for TCG and their journal, American Theatre.  I began my subscription to American Theatre because I realized that I was very focused on what was happening in the Boston Theatre scene, but was not aware of what was happening in my art form in the rest of the country.  This was a problem.  American Theatre has helped rectify that gap in my awareness of the work in which my colleagues around the country are engaging.

The most recent issue brought to my attention that the O’Neill is rapidly approaching its 50th Anniversary.  I am embarrassed that I was unaware of that fact.  I am embarrassed because I did not allow my curiosity to drive me to the O’Neill’s website to take a look at what was coming up for the 2014 National Playwright Conference this summer.  I am embarrassed because I did not seek out the work coming out of one of the country’s best (and most egalitarian) incubators for new work.  I was fully unaware of how the process even worked.  That is no longer the case.  I have now spent time on the O’Neill Center’s website, and read about the submission process, and confirmed their commitment to bringing along the most promising new works possible, regardless of the experience of the playwright.

The O’Neill typically receives approximately 1,000 scripts during this month-long window. The plays are sent to readers across the country; the work is read blindly and narrowed down into a semi-finalist pool and then a finalist pool. This process is maintained by our on-site literary office and is monitored carefully.

The majority of selected plays come from this Open Submission process. Each year, there might be one or two invitations for a prominent playwright to participate. This policy has been in place since the inception of the Conference under Lloyd Richards. For example, in 2009, seven plays were developed, five of which came directly from the Open Submissions process, one from our international Irish project, and one from an invitation. In 2010, all seven plays were found through the open submission process, and for the past three years, seven of eight plays were found in our open submission pool, with one artistic invitation.

I find this level of commitment to seeking the best new plays, without barrier to be wholly in line with the work that I myself want to create.  And the O’Neill is striving to remove all barriers to submission–they are actively working to end the $35 submission fee (which doesn’t even feel like a giant hurdle to me, but I know it can be.  The O’Neill wants to remove it).

The submission fee is $35 dollars. This covers the costs of the process itself. The O’Neill is making active efforts to reduce this fee, including the establishment of the Wendy Wasserstein Endowment Fund. As funds continue to grow, this Endowment will eventually reduce and eliminate the fee, and will guarantee the process remains open in perpetuity, a process dear to Wendy’s heart.

All of this came to my attention through the excerpt American Theatre published from Jeffrey Sweet’s upcoming history of the O’Neill Center:  The O’Neill:  The Transformation of Modern American Theater.  The excerpt is from the beginning of the book, and I was so taken with Sweet’s writing and the story of the O’Neill, I was disappointed, on an almost visceral level, when the excerpt ended.  The thrill of the creative process, and the commitment to the craft of the playwright was present and necessary right from the start.  The history being made at that first conference is present on the page, and extremely exciting.  Of course some of that may come from the fact that Sam Shepard walked out of the conference in a huff.  He basically said, “F this noise,” and left.  From the excerpt

More confrontations came during a panel on criticism, which featured, among others, Boston eminence Elliot Norton.  Says Gagliano, “I seem to remember Eliot Norton bringing up Shakespeare and Sam Shepard getting up and saying, ‘Fuck Shakespeare! It’s not about him anymore!'”  Shepard left Waterford midway through the conference.  White shrugs at the memory.  “Landford tried to get him to stay.  But we served a great purpose for Sam:  He needed some place to walk out of.  I mean he really did.  To make a statement.  He was 19.”

One would think that I would have sought out the work that the O’Neill fosters based off of the scripts Contemporary Drama has introduced,  or the fact that I am invested in the future of American Theatre.  But I did not.  That has forever changed.  And I strongly suspect that Jeffrey Sweet’s upcoming history will soon find its way on to my bookshelf.

The O’Neill:  The Transformation of Modern American Theater will be published in May, 2014 by Yale University Press.

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