It comes as no surprise that the summer after they won the Regional Theatre Tony Award was a cheery one for the staff at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. “One night,” says Wendy C. Goldberg, Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference, “I gave a curtain speech with the Tony and then went and sat back down at my seat with it in my lap. My scenic designer at the time, Rachel Hauck, came and grabbed it from me and handed it to a stage manager, who handed it to a props intern, who then handed it to my assistant who then handed it to another assistant who then got it all locked up back in the cabinet for safe keeping.” This was, after all, apropos; the latest major recognition received by the Center carried part of the way home by the people who had earned it.
Last month, Goldberg and the rest of the staff at the O’Neill announced the programming for their 2017 summer conferences. Among the eight plays being developed at the National Playwrights Conference are new works from established names like Stephen Belber (Tape) and Martyna Majok (Cost of Living) as well as relative newcomers like Inda Craig-Galván, a current MFA candidate at the University of Southern California.
But if there’s one thing that unifies this year’s crop of playwrights is the diversity in their backgrounds, including their artistic experience. L.A. Law’s Michael Tucker, fresh off a run in Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, will be back at the O’Neill developing his play after appearing there as an actor in previous years. Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a writer for the acclaimed indie video game developer Telltale Games, while Steve DiUbaldo’s play is based on his experiences as a NCAA Division-1 basketball player. Mary Elizabeth Hamilton is a Youngblood alum, and Elaine Romero splits her time between Chicago and Tucson, where she teaches at the University of Arizona.
Regardless of where these writers have come from, we can be fairly sure of where they’re going. For over fifty years, the O’Neill has had the most consistent output of any play development program in the country, with Rebecca Gilman, Israel Horovitz, David Henry Hwang, Adam Rapp, David Lindsay-Abaire, Lanford Wilson, Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein among a fraction of the names that have developed work there. August Wilson famously developed five plays from his ‘Century Cycle’ at the O’Neill throughout the 80s and 90s.
But rather than rest on those laurels, it remains the launching pad for each new generation of American plays. The past few months alone have seen Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other (NPC ‘13) complete a well-reviewed run on Broadway, Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone (NPC ‘14) open at the National Theatre in London, and plays like Alligator (NPC ‘12), Oregon Trail (NPC ‘13) and Orange Julius (NPC ‘12) make waves Off-Broadway as well. Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of Fences (NPC ‘83) received four major Oscar nominations, winning one for Viola Davis. For all this and more the O’Neill has been impressively rewarded, receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama this fall. Just recently, no less than twenty-five O’Neill alums were named as 2017 Tony Award nominees.
So: how does Goldberg feel about maintaining this track record in an increasingly competitive play development field? “...As Artistic Directors go,” says Goldberg, “I spend most of my creative life as a director and dramaturg, so I tune in really early to the work I am curating and try to always make decisions about what is best for the project in its current state, and what might benefit it most for the future.”
“Wendy Goldberg is a big proponent of rewriting at the conference. I don’t think the NPC is looking for works that are ‘finished’ and certainly not ‘polished,’” says Matt Schatz, a Los Angeles-based writer and composer whose play The Burdens was developed at the NPC last summer. “I think Wendy’s philosophy is that the script you sent in is on file. Nothing’s going to happen to it. You can always go back to that. But while you’re here, with these talented people, with this time, and these resources, why not try shit? Sure, you could fuck everything up, but it also can be the best thing that ever happens to a play.”
Goldberg also makes sure to include designers in the discussion of the play’s direction, something unique to the O’Neill among developmental labs around the country. “The discussions with designers at the early stages of the play’s development is unique to the O’Neill and also incredibly helpful,” adds Schatz. “It challenges you to be concrete and not so theoretical. Plays live on a stage and not in the authors’ minds.” A life on stage is, after all, the ultimate goal for any play—a responsibility Goldberg does not take lightly once she has invited a playwright to the conference. “I make a lot of calls, advocate for a lot of work and it is true, by the time the projects leave us, they are typically ready to go into a production process.”
It may also have something to do with the fact that the O’Neill is the original play development lab—not only the oldest in the country but the founder of the workshop process as we now know it. As such, Goldberg has a singular grasp on the history of the process, how it’s changing, and how it can improve. For Goldberg, it’s more than just the length of the residency (a full month), and the presence of design elements. “Even more important is the advocacy work we do on the play and playwright’s behalf after they leave us,” says Goldberg. “I have directed in every new play festival and lab in the country and unless the play gets picked up for production at the company we’re at, there is no on going relationship to that work beyond that short period of time we’ve spent there doing a reading or workshop—it’s just not part of this development culture. I wanted to change that and become very active in that process.”