The O’Neill Theater Center plays a key role on the American stage.
(page 2 of 4)
Certain aspects of the conference have always been the same: Playwrights are invited to send their works through the open-submissions process every fall (the NPC is one of the few programs these days that doesn’t require plays to be represented by an agent; 600 to 800 manuscripts are received). A panel of experts—including many theatrical literary managers—then reads the scripts “blind” (without knowing who the authors are); evaluation rounds whittle the field to 100 semifinalists, then to 25 to 30 finalists. From those, Goldberg and her NPC staff choose seven or eight plays to be workshopped.
“By the time the final decision comes to us, I’m aware of who’s written what,” says Goldberg. “That’s important; I want to make sure we have an eclectic group. I’m very interested in new stories—stories that have not yet been told on stage—or an old story that we’ve heard a million times, but has some sort of nuance that makes it new.” Plays developed under her tenure have included Julia Cho’s melancholy meditation on human relationships The Language Archive, which prominently features the invented international language Esperanto, and Adam Bock’s The Receptionist, a deceptive office comedy about a corporation in the business of torture. (This season’s plays will include David West Read’s The Dream of the Burning Boy and Carrie Barrett’s The Burden of Not Having a Tail.)
In addition to the core group, Goldberg often specially invites one or two prominent playwrights to workshop a new project (last year Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz showcased his The Color of Desire, themed around American-Cuban relations in the early 1960s). Each of these writers spends one week in intensive development of his or her play (ending with two public presentations), but all are expected to take part in the entire four-week conference and attend one another’s rehearsals and readings. A small group of other invited “writers-in-residence” (who come to write at their own pace but do not workshop a project) are similarly obligated to attend these sessions. “Each group of writers ends up supporting one another even after the conference; there’s a natural mentorship that happens,” Goldberg says.
One unique feature of the NPC is that all workshops feature a “dream design” session, in which writers meet with the conference’s stage designers to discuss what they’d like the play to look like on the boards. “To me, that’s what makes this a theatrical conference and not a literary conference,” says Goldberg. “It also puts the playwright at the center of the process.
The director of the play also attends the session but must remain silent—that’s very rare. Playwrights can become disempowered very easily because decisions need to be made quickly and they often get knocked aside. Dream design usually turns into the kind of dramaturgical discussion that teaches writers to communicate about their work in a way others can understand.” As a result of these sessions, the designers create sketches and images that audiences view at the public presentations.
Goldberg is also devoted to seeing the workshopped plays move into production; close to 30 of the nearly 40 works she’s already brought through The O’Neill have since enjoyed world premieres at regional theaters across the United States. Says she, “I’m always thinking about what sort of story might sing better in a certain part of the country and how I can connect an artist to a theater and win the theater’s commitment.”
Thanks to her first experience at the O’Neill in 2005—as an invited playwright—Julia Cho wound up with an unexpected world premiere opportunity for her play, Durango, the story of a Korean-American family’s road trip to Colorado. Goldberg brought in Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, to be a “mentor” for the play. Edelstein had directed another Cho work, BFE, at Long Wharf the previous season. “So I already knew him well,” Cho says. “And it was really funny, because his initial attitude was, ‘My theater just did a play of yours, and we won’t do another for a while. This is about process and I’m totally here for you. I just don’t want you to have any expectations.’