How Wendy C. Goldberg and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Nurture the Next Generation of American Plays

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How Wendy C. Goldberg and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Nurture the Next Generation of American Plays

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.”

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a campus that fosters creativity and collaboration in its own layout. Located in Waterford, Connecticut, the Center’s historic main building is a relatively cozy mansion. During lunch hours at the height of the summer, the mansion bustles with writers, directors, dramaturges, interns, and actors. You might eat on the back porch, your feet in the grass of a massive backyard that extends all the way down to the ocean. It’s just a brief walk away; the ideal place to clear your head.

Or, if you finish your meal early, you could head up to the third floor, past the literary offices to an attic library that houses not only the center’s collection of books but also early manuscripts from past summers. Interested in what changed from the first drafts of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether (NPC ‘11)? Look no further. In addition, you might find writers of all stripes quietly getting work done alongside that season’s writer-in-residence—Stephen Karam consulting a previous translation of The Cherry Orchard while at work on something new.

The surrounding residences are home to the O’Neill staff and artists as well as the teachers and students at the National Theatre Institute. Four separate indoor and outdoor theaters house rehearsals and readings. On the weekends, a reading might take place on the thrust stage that sits in the shade of two massive beech trees—a marvelous convenient place if ever there was one. At the end of the day, artists from every corner of the Center invariably wind up at Blue Gene’s — the small pub located right across from the main building, staffed and attended solely by O’Neill folks — to wind down and socialize. Not only does this rustic log-cabin double as a small cabaret space, but its walls are covered with programs from years of O’Neill readings and workshops (the result of an old opening night tradition). Plus, each season’s scripts are available in binders for pub-goers to study.

The overall effect is decidedly new-agey for a campus that hosts such venerable old spaces, with artists circling each other on their way from one building to another; more Pixar than you would expect. A summer camp for theatre professionals, but you can drink. “Every week, there was a new set of faces in line for meals, a new group of artists to mingle with, learn from, maybe take a swim at the beach with!” says Josh Henderson-Cox, a former NTI student who has returned to campus as an an apprentice, assistant, visiting artist, and kitchen employee. “The O’Neill is more than any one of its programs, and it’s way more than any one person’s experience. It’s its own chimerical self.”

All of this, of course, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what the O’Neill offers. Off-season initiatives have grown at a staggering rate, notes Associate Producer Aislinn Frantz. “We’ve recently added the National Music Theater Institute, which applies the NTI method to musical theater,” Frantz says of the Center’s year-round programming, which has also grown to include partnerships with the Jim Henson Foundation, National Directors Fellowship, National New Play Network, Doris Duke Foundation, Jerome Robbins Foundation, and — to cap it all off — the Mystic Aquarium California Sea Lions show. In addition to the NPC, the O’Neill hosts conferences for musical theatre, puppetry, and criticism every summer, bringing in students for NTI’s Theatremakers intensive and big names for the annual Summer Gala — generally present at these events are many artists who return to thank the O’Neill for giving them their first big break. Last summer, during a dinner honoring husband and wife duo Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, NMTC ‘02) and Kristin Anderson-Lopez (In Transit, MNTC ’08), the songwriters themselves performed a song they had written entitled “Songs I Wished I’d Written” to honor Stephen Sondheim on his birthday. “I should look for inspiration,” they sang. “Not for validation.”

Which brings us back to one of the O’Neill’s central attractions for writers; proximity to the artistic spirit of its namesake. The Center manages and operates the Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s boyhood home, where the action of Long Day’s Journey Into Night is set. “Not too long ago,” says Goldberg, “we did a reading of a lost O’Neill play entitled Exorcism in his house, and I was nervous about raising the spirits, frankly…” New London locals boast stories of the drunken shenanigans of James O’Neill and his sons, and legend has it that O’Neill was well known for taking ladies on “dates” around his neighbors’ land before being chased off with a shotgun. The O’Neill campus rests squarely on that same neighbors’ property—the same plot they were buried in. That darkly ironic victory for O’Neill adds a sense of playfulness to the Center’s literary pedigree. And all of the history brought to the surface at the O’Neill—from the period-accurate wallpaper at the Monte Cristo to manuscripts in the attic to the programs nailed to the wall of Blue Gene’s—reminds us of what the O’Neill does best; placing writers in conversation with the past while helping them create the future.