The O’Neill Theater Center plays a key role on the American stage.
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“I so appreciated his honesty, and he was a great spirit to have in the room. But by the end of the workshop he’d had a complete change of heart and was like, ‘We’re going to produce this play!’ He got really into it, and true to his word, he brought Durango to Long Wharf and arranged a co-production with the Public Theatre in New York City. I don’t know that any of that would have happened if Gordon and I hadn’t been matched. I don’t know if Wendy had any expectations either; she’s just great at putting people together and seeing what happens.”
Cho returned to the Playwrights Conference in 2009 with The Language Archive, which she sent through the regular open-submissions process. Commissioned by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, Cho and this play had special needs. “I had started working on TV”—she’s a writer for the HBO series “Big Love”—“and I really needed some time to get away and focus,” she says. “I also wanted to establish rapport with the director Mark Brokaw, who’s an artistic associate with the Roundabout.”
Missions accomplished, and again The O’Neill offered assistance she hadn’t expected. “I needed people who could vet my use of Esperanto in Archive, which involved a lot of fact-checking and liturgical help. The details of the language have to be ironclad before you can have any kind of produced performance. One of the great things about The O’Neill is that they have an extensive internship program, so I wound up with my own research team. That’s something a playwright never has.”
Since its development at the NPC, The Language Archive has won the prestigious 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given annually to an outstanding new English-language play by a woman. It completed its world-premiere run in April at California’s South Coast Repertory Company, and debuts at the Roundabout this fall. Cho remains grateful for The O’Neill’s commitment to her work. “They’re more adventurous about their seasons than traditional theaters, which have to think about cost and whether audiences will come,” she says. “There are plays I’ve seen there that have stuck with me more than shows I’ve seen fully produced.”
You could call Paulette Haupt, artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference (NMTC) since its inception in 1978, one of the O’Neill’s “dinosaurs”—she does—but she radiates such energy and joie de vivre that that label seems way beyond wrong During her tenure she’s overseen the development of more than 100 musicals, roughly 80 of which have been produced: Three have gone on to Tony Award-winning runs on Broadway (Avenue Q, Nine, In the Heights) and another 30 or so to New York’s off-Broadway or subscription theaters (The Wild Party, Violet, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin).
Though the submissions process is essentially the same as the one used by the NPC, the numbers (of anywhere from 80 to 130 scripts per year, two or three are typically chosen) and the expectations are different. Haupt requires that applicants initially send in only the first 30 pages of the script (as well as a demo recording of the score). “Usually, by the time you reach the end of those 30 pages, you either know what the show’s about or you’re thoroughly confused, and if you’re confused, it’s too early for development,” she says. Final choices are totally subjective: “For me, it usually comes down to a piece that makes the hair on the back of my neck stick out, or causes me to laugh or cry out loud.” This season’s musicals will be the romantic comedy Buddy’s Tavern, Clear (a tale of spiritual destiny) and Eden, set against the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.
Unlike the NPC, there are no dream designs, no discussions of light cues or stage entrances/exits, no goals other than to work on the bones of each show. “A musical is a tapestry with three basic threads,” says Haupt, “spoken text, sung text and music. How that tapestry is put together is complex to begin with; when you pull on any of those threads, it’s just as complex to reassemble everything.”