Thursday, February 15, 2007

First Principles

Lloyd Richards' Fading Dream

In years past, this would be the season that playwrights would be waiting to hear whether they had been selected to participate in the summer National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford, Conn. To say this is a month-long experience of crafting new plays and discovering new playwrights with the participation of of some of America's best theatre artists only hints at the magic that happened there. That used to happen there.

When I spent a couple of weeks there in 1991, on assignment to Smithsonian Magazine (an expanded version of my article is on the web here), there was some worry about the conference's future. But as long as the late Lloyd Richards was in charge, it was one of the most important places in American theatre, both in the nurturing of new writing (writers I met there have since become major voices in TV and film as well as regional and New York theatre) and in reaffirming the best ideals and practices of American theatre. One of the many New York actors who returned there every year described it as "renewing my vows."

But for the past few years I've watched from afar as the summer conference has deteriorated. They've had a couple of artistic directors since Richards' retired, at least one of them leaving under a cloud. Last spring-- a few months 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. An article in the latest issue of The Dramatist suggests the situation is even worse.

For many years, Lloyd Richards was the head of Yale Drama and artistic director of the O''Neill's playwright conference. 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. But in his years of directing and discovering and nurturing playwrights of all races, his most important find was August Wilson, who created the richest and most sustained expression of African American life in the twentieth century, and in doing so, became a great American playwright. Richards discovered him when, after several years of his entries being rejected, August Wilson sent Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to the O'Neill.

But August Wilson wasn't the only discovery. The fledgling playwrights who spent July at the O'Neill included Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Christopher Durang, David Henry Hwang, Lee Blessing, Charles Fuller and Lanford Wilson. For two weeks, a playwright's script was the center of attention by a director, a dramaturg, a designer--all accomplished professionals--and professional actors, which might well include Obie, Tony or even Oscar winners. Writers could rewrite as much or as little as they wanted, and everyone was ready and eager to make changes, even between the two performances each play received. Everyone in the summer community attended every play, and everyone was invited to carefully organized critiques a day or so later.

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.

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 hosted but eight playwrights, and one of them did not emerge from the regular submissions process. Moreover, this play was "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 Dramatist article (by Steven Ginsberg) shows that the O'Neill has become even more restrictive for this summer. He writes that of the eight spots in 2007, two are pre-determined, one to the Alliance Theater and another to the Abbey Theater in Dublin. A third is devoted to a Theater for Youth Project, and a fourth "is taken by an established playwright who was likely 'not in competition'". Ginsberg conjectures this year one of these is "awarded to a playwright wth commissions from several major theatres" and another to a new play by the playwright who authored the Youth Project play. He reckons that unsolicted submissions are actually vying for two spots.

In the Richards era, it wasn't unusual for playwrights who had been at the conference before to return with a new play. In fact, that was part of the culture of the place--and the new playwrights learned from the O'Neill veterans. But the year I visited at least half of the playwrights were new to the O'Neill, and several didn't have much in the way of significant productions in their resumes. (Ginsberg's article is ostensibly about whether it is worth it to unproduced playwrights to pay the fees to enter contests, of which the O'Neill has traditionally been the gold standard. He mentions that the O'Neill's fee is relatively high, at $35. It used to be much less. But what he doesn't mention is that the O'Neill, which used to require only one copy of the script, requires several bound copies now--a few years ago it was 5--which could easily push the cost of submitting a script to more than $100.)

In the Richards era, 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.

In defending the use of more elaborate sets and production values for some plays, 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. In fact, before Richards took over and even early in his tenure, there were such elaborate productions. He put a stop to them because of all the chaos they caused. Being so close to New York, the O'Neill always had the pressure of New York producers coming up to shop for new plays, and the more elaborate productions gave some plays an unfair advantage, and the competition and commercialism threatened to swamp the festival as a place to help playwrights find their voices and make the best scripts possible. So he went to the strict rules of simple sets, and the same basic production values for all plays.

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. That's why the actor I met, 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.

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.

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