“Reading stories that have never been told…Stories that have been told a million times before with a new twist…That I’m intrigued by…That are interesting…Pieces that aren’t finished yet but are ready to be seen…” explained Wendy Goldberg, the artistic director of the national Playwrights Conference of The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, on how she selects the plays to be presented each year.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The O’Neill Theater Center, a panel discussion was held at The 92nd Street Y that sketched its history and focused on its present activities.
In addition to Ms. Goldberg, the participants included, artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference Paulette Haupt, recent alumni Adam Gwon (composer), Sarah Hammond (librettist) and Deborah Zoe Laufer (playwright). The O’Neill’s Literary Manager, Anne G. Morgan, moderated the event.
Founded in 1964 by George C. White, and located in New London, Connecticut, The O’Neill was created to develop new plays and musicals through a workshop and public reading process. “It decentralized theater from New York City, leading to the regional theater movement in The United States,” said Ms. Goldberg. It also inspired the creation of similar workshop festivals such as The Sundance Institute.
Currently, The O’Neill annually presents eight plays and three to four musicals. Last year the open submissions included a record 1,200 plays, and about two hundred musicals. Readers and literary managers sift through them, and the artistic directors read the most promising ones to make the final selections.
Each work is publicly performed as a staged reading four times over two weeks, allowing the authors the opportunity to make alterations after each reading. “It’s about changing and re-changing,” wryly recalled Mr. Gwon, about making a disastrous alteration to a show, and then being able to switch back to the original version.
Ms. Haupt explained that the founder asked her to take on the role of the artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference in 1978, and she’s been there ever since. She described how an opera based on Eugene O’Neill’s play, Desire Under the Elms, took 11 years from its workshop to having a full production at New York’s City Opera, whereas the musical Nine, went to Broadway soon after it’s workshop. “The journeys are amazingly different, but the process is the same.”
In addition to the highly informative discussion, there were also performances from alumni of The O’Neill of works that been developed during the National Playwrights Conference and the National Music Theater Conference in recent years. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and performer David Friedlander, read from her play End Days, developed during her 2007 residency. This is an absurdist work about a Jewish woman who becomes an Evangelical after meeting Jesus Christ in an XXX video store.
Composer and lyricist Gwon, performed two songs from the musical String, for which panel participant Sarah Hammond had written the book, which had been workshopped at The O’Neill in 2012. He accompanied and sang with talented singer Addi McDaniel who performed the role of the goddess Atropos. This intriguing show transports the three Fates from Greek mythology to modern times.
Following the lively group’s dialogue, the audience was invited to ask questions. Many were about the submission and work process, and these elicited many detailed responses and anecdotes from the group.
O’Neill Center: 50 Years of Creating American Theater (September 8, 2014)
The 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For future program tickets call, 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92y.org
Running time: one hour and 15 minutes without an intermission