Old Institutions, New Plays
What The O’Neill Model Can Teach Us
The O’Neill series celebrates and investigates the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s fifty year impact on individual artists and the wider theatrical community.
Fifty years ago, an enterprising young man named George C. White was sailing on Long Island Sound near his childhood home of Waterford, CT, when he learned that one of the farming estates gracing the shores was scheduled to be burned down as a training exercise for the local fire department. He wondered if there might be a better use for the buildings. That summer he invited a group of early career playwrights to come north from New York City to discuss the current state of playwriting in American theatre. He renamed it in honor of the town’s not-entirely-favorite son, America’s only Nobel winning dramatist, Eugene O’Neill, and called the gathering the National Playwrights Conference. The rest, as they say, is history.
But, in the words of our namesake’s most autobiographical work Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “the past is present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.” When the National Playwrights Conference began, new play development was a radical notion. Today an abundance of programs offer writers the opportunity to hear their work before production. Conversations in the field frequently return to the old song of “development hell,” but the over 1,200 applications for the 2014 conference speak for themselves. Not only has our model of an intensive workshop process culminating in script-in-hand staged readings come to permeate the landscape of American theatre, from where I sit it seems also to serve as a metaphor for the O’Neill’s own institutional growth.
The National Playwrights Conference process begins with one of our most unique elements—the dream design meeting. Before even entering the rehearsal space the writer sits down on the farmhouse porch with our talented team of resident designers. (The director and dramaturg are present but strongly discouraged from speaking). For an hour, sometimes more, the writer and designers have a conversation about what the play would look like, sound like, feel like, if the constraints of budget and the laws of physics were nonexistent. It is a thorough examination of the living, breathing world of the play as the playwright has dreamed it.
Later that same day, the team gathers again (this time the director and dramaturg are allowed to speak) for a practical design meeting. This conversation, centering around the limited time and limited resources of NPC, forces a clarity about the goals of the workshop and defines what elements are the most important to be realized on the stage.
While perhaps best known for the National Playwrights Conference, the O’Neill is much more than an epicenter of new plays.
Like plays, institutions are also living, breathing worlds born out of a dream. The O’Neill is guided by its mission of discovering and developing new works and new artists for the stage. Our view of what that means has grown and expanded over the decades. While perhaps best known for the National Playwrights Conference, the O’Neill is much more than an epicenter of new plays. Since 1964, we’ve added programs in criticism, music theatre, puppetry, and cabaret, along with an undergraduate study away semester. This fall we will grow again by adding a musical theatre training wing (the National Music Theater Institute) to our existing undergraduate program.
But it didn’t happen over night. Like the practical design meeting, these programs have taken years of planning, preparation, and fundraising. For each to get off the ground, the O’Neill is forced, like the writer and creative team, to articulate which elements are most important to make the dream a reality. But the questions and inspirations from the dream remain and offer guidance for future building once the framework is stable.
Armed with the previous day’s dream and practical conversations, the writer embarks on the rehearsal process. When put in a room with an intelligent, curious company of director, dramaturg, and actors, questions abound and revisions fly fast and furious. One enterprising dramaturg recently calculated that, of the draft that began the workshop process, by the end of the week only nine percent of the pages remained completely untouched. We’ve had writers change the ending of their play with only half an hour remaining for tech; we had a writer cure his leading lady of terminal cancer overnight. These are just a few examples of the freedom writers feel at the National Playwrights Conference to continually and bravely refine their plays.
My favorite example of what revision can look like on an institutional level is the concurrent creation of new play dramaturgy and the National Critics Institute. From the earliest days of the O’Neill, our founder George White knew that critics were necessary to the conversation of creating new work. In 1966, following each play’s presentation, a panel of critics discussed what they had seen with the writer and audience. White reports, “these discussions were lively and constructive and pointed out the potential value of the critics’ involvement in a playwrights conference.” In the years that followed however, tensions between the two parties increased. The original model was revised and a training program for critics was born. However, the public critiques of the plays by the critics-in-training proved the final straw for the existing playwright-critic relationship. Further revisions were needed. It was decided that the critic training program would operate concurrently with, but independently from, the playwrights conference, and it continues in this manner today. But White also still believed that some kind of relationship between critic and playwright was needed. He wrote:
An interesting fact emerged after much questioning of the playwrights. This was that though they seemed to outwardly resist the presence of any critics, they, in reality, did not mind, and indeed welcomed the participation of the critics they respected. This intelligence began the idea of creating the post of dramatourg [sic]. Playwrights from past years and those selected for the 1969 conference were sent a ballot and asked to vote (in order of preference) for a group of critics they had either met at the conference or wished to have criticize their work. Among those selected and available to be dramatourgs were Samuel Hirsch (Boston Herald Traveler), John Lahr (Evergreen Review) and Henry Hewes (The Saturday Review). These men were assigned to a play and were asked to read it, sit in on rehearsals and the two performances and attended the general conference discussion of the play which took place generally two mornings after the performance. They were also to meet quietly with the playwright and his director to discuss the work and to give the author the benefit of his knowledge and experience.
This concept was put into action and met with success in the summer of 1969. While much has changed in the intervening years, when we embark on this summer’s National Playwrights Conference, the dramaturgs we engage will be asked to perform tasks similar to those of their early critic-dramaturg predecessors: read the play, attend rehearsals, and offer their thoughts and perspectives in conversation with the playwright and the director.
After a just a few short days of rehearsal, it’s time for the first audience. The O’Neill audience is a unique one, comprised in part of loyal members of the local community, who have been supporting the O’Neill for years and are deeply familiar with both the new play development process and the O’Neill’s own development over the years; the O’Neill staff, summer staff, interns, and students, each somewhere on the path to carving out a life in the theatre, deeply engaged and inquisitive; and always a handful of friends and colleagues escaping the heat and smog of New York City for the rejuvenation of the shore and the curiosity of a brand new piece of theatre. The benefit of the audience is huge, and instrumental in the ethos of the O’Neill since our founding. Where an audience laughs, when the audience begins to fidget, and when even the sound of nearby fireworks can’t break the audience’s focus all tell the writer something about the play. The day after the staged reading, the company assembles for two hours of rehearsal before a second staged reading that night. Adjustments, sometimes seismic and sometimes a focused finesse, are made. And then, the show must go on again, in front of a new audience, with new perspectives and considerations.
Approximately one-third of all applicants to the National Music Theater Conference have submitted work for consideration before; with the National Playwrights Conference that number jumps to just over fifty percent.
The O’Neill has learned to listen to its audiences of participants, applicants, and peers. Approximately one-third of all applicants to the National Music Theater Conference have submitted work for consideration before; with the National Playwrights Conference that number jumps to just over fifty percent. Feedback comes to us both from casual conversation with writers and through anonymous surveys about the application experience. The responses we receive are valuable as we consider the areas that need refinement and revision moving forward. In 2013, sixty-five percent of NMTC survey respondents strongly recommended moving to an online application process. This year, due in large part to the urging of our applicants, we launched an online application (in addition to continuing to accept hard copy applications for those who preferred it). Nearly ninety percent of applicants used the online application. While I consider this a success (in addition to the added bonus of sparing writers the costs of printing and mailing), the online application still needs revising. Some of the adjustments we’ll make over the coming year(s) were immediately apparent once we began accepting applications, but many changes will have had their root in applicant feedback.
After the two public readings, the playwright’s workshop process officially concludes (with appropriate revelry of course). From there, who knows what will become of the project. Many will go on to full productions around the country, perhaps helped by the strength of the work done at the O’Neill. On rare occasions, little of note happens for the play, but that idea that popped into the writer’s head while lying on the Waterford beach may become their best known play, or a late night philosophical sparring at Blue Gene’s pub might launch an artistic collaboration to last a lifetime.
Like our plays and their writers, many of the O’Neill’s programs and philosophies have spread to the greater theatrical community. Robert Redford modeled his Sundance Institute on the O’Neill; numerous theatre companies and devising groups grew out of the student ensembles created through the National Theater Institute. With over seven hundred plays developed here and thousands of artists having trained and worked here, the ethos of the O’Neill has consciously and unconsciously woven itself into the fabric of the American theatre.
In an age of seemingly constant conversations about how and why institutions are failing American theatre and its artists, I see the O’Neill as a refreshing example of what it looks like when theatre institutions succeed. Despite all of our challenges, I believe that all theatre artists generally approach the development of a new play with openness and generosity of spirit. What if that same perspective could be the lens through which we view our institutions? Theatres should be seen not as locked, monolithic tomes, but like new plays. They are the embodiment of a dream that has been practically realized, if only in part; a work constantly under revision; an offering to the greater theatrical community for reactions; and a contribution to the work that will come after, and alongside.