Why I Voted to Give a Tony to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and Why I Almost Didn’t


[Note: For those of you who are reading this post for the first time (or for those of you who are revisiting), I omitted one critical piece of information and I want to apologize. I did read plays for the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill for several years. Scripts were always sent to me without cover pages, so in the technical sense I didn’t know the name of the author. No script I recommended turned out to be selected.

Again, I should have mentioned this earlier; the omission is my error.]

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As a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, each year I am given the opportunity to nominate, second and then vote for the Tony Award for Regional Theater. Generally I neither nominate nor second a company unless I feel that I have enough familiarity with it in order to do so; occasionally that has been the case. Most often, however, I wait until the ballot actually arrives, then I carefully read the provided information about the various nominated institutions and try to make as fair and as unswerving a judgment as possible. The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, joint custodians of the Tony Awards, are under no contractual obligation to accede to the recommendation made by ATCA’s membership. Yet each year since 1976, the group’s s recommendation has been respected.

For this year, it was announced that the Tony for Regional Theater will go to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. And I was one of those who voted for it (we rank them, it was my top choice).

I want to tell you why I voted for it.

I also want to tell you why I almost didn’t.

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First, I voted for the O’Neill because its 46-year record of developing new plays and musicals is virtually unsurpassed in the American theater. Plain and simple. In terms of sheer activity, the O’Neill is a colossus: you can’t throw a cat, live or dead, in New York City and not hit somebody who hasn’t worked there, from actors to directors to writers, even to those awful dramaturges that no one knows what they really do. Take a look at this list of 628 plays workshoped as part of the O’Neill’s acclaimed National Playwrights’ Conference, the core program of the organization. Here are the titles I might cite as just a few of the many standouts on a list of clear standouts: Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx and John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves (1966); Albert Innaurato’s The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie (1973); Christopher Durang’s A History of the American Film (1976); Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others and Ted Tally’s Terra Nova (1977); David Henry Hwang’s FOB and John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God (1979); August Wilson’s Fences and John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (1983); Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods (1986); John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler (1995); David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers (1998); Adam Rapp’s Finer Noble Gases (2002); Gina Gionfriddo’s After Ashley (2003); Jason Grote’s 1001 (2006); Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Good Boys and True (2007).

You’ll notice I only listed playwrights once. That is patently unfair to all those other plays by Wilson, to all those other plays by Blessing, to the three plays by Charles OyamO Gordon, to the four plays by Adam Rapp, to the five plays by Jeffrey Hatcher, and so forth.

And that is, of course, just new plays. The Music-Theater Conference list might include (and please forgive for omitting all the writers’ credits): Nine (1979), Fahrenheit 451 (1985 and 1986), Hannah…1939 (1989), Avenue X (1992), Violet (1994), The Wild Party (1997, the Andrew Lippa version), The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (1998), Avenue Q (2002) and In the Heights (2005). The O’Neill isn’t about taking a piece of a writer’s future earnings (although given the economy, maybe they should) and isn’t about their own greater glory. It’s about developing new work. There is such purity and such safety in such a dedication to a fundamental good.

So, congratulations to the O’Neill — all of it, I should add, for there are a total of seven programs; I’ve been honored to teach since 2006 in the National Critics Institute, which is run by my friend and mentor, critic Dan Sullivan. (Per the O’Neill’s press release, NCI operates in “partnership with the National Playwrights’ Conference…provides 20 aspiring and working arts journalists a sustained opportunity to explore the theatrical processes they cover.”) There is also the National Theater Institute, the National Puppetry Conference, the Cabaret and Performance Conference and also the legendary Monte Cristo Cottage, which was the O’Neill family homestead and is now “maintained as an educational and cultural resource and is open to the public.

But I had one very good reason for not voting for the O’Neill: It is an open secret the National Playwrights’ Conference is much less of an “open submission” opportunity for American dramatists as the O’Neill may like theater professionals to believe. I’m not suggesting that the conference’s current artistic director, Wendy C. Goldberg, isn’t stellar — she has made some wise, cunning, provocative, fruitful, even masterful choices since coming on board. But no one I know in the American theater believes that the submission process is truly blind, truly fair or truly not stacked against you if you are a true unknown. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve read and posts I come across on platforms such as the dramaturgy.net listserv that have decried the way in which plays and playwrights for the O’Neill are currently being chosen. Sure, you can say that the program is Goldberg’s now and she has a right to workshop and develop who and what she pleases. I am simply saying that someone with Goldberg’s platform has a moral — yes, I said a moral — duty here as well.

One of the illnesses plaguing the American theater is the unwillingness of playwrights to articulate their frustration in public, especially within earshot of the powerful organizations that can make, enhance or break a career. But I can.

Now, I dearly love the O’Neill. It’s a very special place. There’s magic in those spaces, those performing barns, in the whiff of ocean just beyond the center’s campus, in the whimsical, bubble-gum-and-tie-line atmosphere, in the sense of experimentation and polishing occurring far from critical, prying eyes. Let this well-earned Tony serve as a clarion call to Goldberg — to O’Neill Executive Director Preston Whiteway, too, to anyone who esteems the O’Neill as much I do. It is imperative that the O’Neill get back to discovering more of the undiscovered. Which means it should work with fewer of those “usual suspects.” The very future of the American theater remains at stake.

Charles OyamO Gordon
  • 99

    I didn’t want to clog up your comments, so I responded to this here: http://99seats.blogspot.com/2010/05/submission-admissions-again.html

    • You weren’t clogging a thing, as it turns out. You’re welcome to communicate with me. Given what you wrote, I doubt you will.

  • 99

    Since you seem to not like the tone of my response, I’ll keep my communication simple: do you have any proof for your assertions here? Is the process at the O’Neill unfair or not actually blind or open? Do you have a single concrete example?

    • Not just the tone but the substance. Listen, you started off your criticism of what I wrote with a criticism of me as a person. I see little point in engaging with you since you don’t know me. So why I would bother responding beyond that seems unfathomable.

  • 99

    Which criticism of you, as a person, was that? I said, “I generally steer clear of Leonard. We play fairly nice, but don’t really get along all that well and the internet is big enough for both of us. I try to give him a wide berth.” We don’t. We’ve sparred in comments here and other places, about matters of taste and opinion. I didn’t say anything about you, as a person. Or even as a writer. Oh, okay, I referred to you as “always acidic.” I do mean that as a writer.

    But the substance of my critique of this post is that it appears to be based on nothing at all, except some vague rumor. You back it up with no evidence of any kind. You’ve impugned the integrity of the O’Neill, its AD and the writers selected without any back-up. That’s the substance.

    • On what planet is “gossip-mongering and scandal-making” and “self-important, self-aggrandizing hackery” considered loving? Enough. Bye.

  • 99

    I never promised you a rose garden. I doubt you’ll actually post this comment, but, Leonard, making accusations with no back-up IS hackery, and gossip-mongering. You have an issue with my tone, not my substance. And, I’m beginning to suspect, your post has no actual substance. You have no reason or evidence to believe that the O’Neill’s admission process is unfair, and yet you wrote this post. And, now being called on it, you have no answer. I stand by my words.

    • You never promised me anything and I never promised you anything. In terms of publishing comments, I don’t censor mine, unlike some of your blogger-bully buddies.

      But let me address your dare directly.

      If you read Outrageous Fortune, you know that playwrights don’t speak out on certain subjects, trends and choices made by artistic directors and others because they fear retribution. What you want me to do, then, is out any playwright, any member of the professional theater, in fact, who has ever said to me, in any setting or in any conversation, that they believe the “open submission” process at the O’Neill is not 100% absolutely pure, as you assert it is. (Your failure to offer proof that the process is absolutely pure, I guess, doesn’t matter, either.) Analyzing my writing style does not constitute proof.

      Well, I will not sit here at the request of you, of all individuals, and recite a list of all the playwrights I know and regurgitate all they’ve ever said about the O’Neill (or any other theater, for that matter) and its open submissions process (or any other process or event or project, for that matter).

      But I will give you this tidbit, Sherlock: If you want to go get a subpoena and look at my computer, I have an email sent to me just last night from the artistic director of a theater company here in New York who told me that his/her spouse reads for the O’Neill and both happen to agree with my point of view. Now go get yourself that attorney, 99, go get yourself that subpoena. Go, go, go!

      For I stand 100% by my words just like you, agent 99, and I further stand with no apology on behalf of the American playwright, and if I think on the basis of too much chatter for too long that such-and-such happens to be an open secret, and if I wish to say so, I’m going to say so, and I need not clear it or seek approval from the likes of you. I couldn’t give a damn what you think or what you call it, so hurl whatever names give you satisfaction when you look in the mirror. Knock yourself out.

      Clearly Rolando Teco and others made an issue about the O’Neill before I did (as you noted), which makes me wonder why you aren’t foisting your mealy-mouthed moral indignation toward him. Here’s an even more apt question: Todd London, in Outrageous Fortune, admits he won’t reveal his sources. Why aren’t you questioning each criticism, each accusation, each concern, each conclusion posited in his book?

      If you want to keep leaving comments, one-hundred-minus-one, go ahead, I’ll publish them. It’s great for my traffic, great for my advertisers. Leave as many as you like. But I will — to reiterate — stand behind my words as well.

      Oh — one last thing. You question my ethics, that’s fine. I’m not bothered by that, nor am I threatened. But I did find something amusing about you. I realized I should have mentioned that I was a reader for the O’Neill and I put that correction at the top of my post, in bold. You rewrote your post regarding me being a Tony voter after I publicly corrected you on your site, and then you relegated your admission of error to the bottom of your post, buried. Says more about you than anything you write about me.


  • 99

    Well, I followed a different trend in corrections, especially since mine was a minor confusion about which professional group you belong to and how best to describe that. If that means you want to question my ethics on the basis of where I put my corrections, go right ahead. I’m questioning yours based on your actual writing.

    And this comment is more of the same. I wrote an entire post about Rolando Teco’s piece when it happened. His was actually less odious than yours, especially because he doesn’t purport to be a journalist. I did read Outrageous Fortune, a couple of times and wrote extensively on it. While the book’s authors maintain anonymity for the bulk of the comments, they also provide a methodology and a list of participants. They have numbers and actual figures to quote. You do not. You’re repeating gossip and treating it like news.

    It’s not about protecting sources or anonymity. It’s about backing up your claims. Which you very clearly can not do.

    I’m not analyzing your writing style, though I could. I’m responding to it. You wrote a clear piece, making clear claims. And still you haven’t offered up anything substantive. You haven’t said how the process should be adjusted or where it falls apart. You haven’t answered any questions about the quality of the plays chosen. You’ve just hurled a brick at a window and seem to be pissed when someone says that’s not cool.

    And you know what, I’m glad to hear that my presence is helping your bank account. What would you do without me?

    If you want to send along the e-mail, scrubbed of any identifying details, go right ahead. Last night, I received an e-mail from a writer who was at the O’Neill recently expressing the opposite opinion. My larger concern, which you’re missing, since all you care about is your ego, is that using gossip and rumors to attack an institution or a person is a shoddy practice and we in the theatre let it go on too much. I have no particular love for the O’Neill; I’ve never been accepted and this year, I didn’t even apply because I have issues with the whole submission fee thing. But rather than just saying “it’s an open secret” that the O’Neill is failing in its “moral duty,” you should be held to higher standard. I’m sorry to hear that you’re not threatened that I’ve questioned your ethics. What does that say about you?

    • You can have the last word. Thanks.

  • Been There

    Wow, it’s getting mean in here.

    My take is that you’re BOTH right, and both letting your tempers get the best of you.

    Is the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference submission process 100% blind? No. Leonard’s right. I know it’s not 100% blind. I won’t say HOW I know it, but I know it from personal experience, and not from hearsay or gossip.

    Does that actually matter? No, I personally don’t think it does. Because I also don’t think that the process is ridiculously crooked or rife with backroom dealing. Sure, I bet some established writers may get some extra attention, or even an email from the AD saying, “Just a reminder, we have a deadline coming up, if you have anything you want to work on, we’d love to see it.” But it’s been my experience that no one gets a free pass. There have been several established writers that I know of who have had their plays REJECTED by the O’Neill. So a recognizable name doesn’t necessarily insure you a room by the beach. It’s easy to assume that it does, but you’d be wrong. So, yeah, maybe the process is 98% blind. But is that so terrible? Naaaah.

    Now I realize the danger in bending the rules even a LITTLE bit, slippery slopes being what they are, but one need only look at the roster of writers every year to see that the majority of the slots at the Oneill have always gone, and continue to go to more emerging, lesser known writers. There is no doubt that what that organization does is singular and invaluable to anyone who has gone through it. Have there been plays that have gotten in SOLELY because they were written by someone relatively famous? Plays that would’ve been rejected by someone without a known name? I have no idea. And it’s impossible to know. Or maybe it isn’t. Do you know of any of those plays, Leonard? You seem to imply that maybe you do. If so, I’d love to hear you say yes. No need to name names – as I’m just curious. But have worthy plays been overlooked because of worthier names?

    I have to also point out that the O’Neill’s NPC is not JUST a place that nurtures and supports new plays. That is obviously central to its mission, but I have to say (again from personal experience) that that is not the ONLY amazing thing about the Oneill. It is also a place where playwrights at the very beginning of their careers have a chance to work alongside the likes of Lee Blessing or (back in the day) August Wilson – as PEERS.

    Yes, it’s an honor to be selected for the Oneill, and to work on your play there, and maybe get some attention from lit managers and agents, but to anyone who’s been through the process – the GREATER gift can sometimes be breaking bread with more established writers, or having a beer with them at Blue Gene’s Pub, and hearing their war stories, or asking them questions about craft, and sitting in on THEIR rehearsals and seeing how they interact with a director and actors. It can be a classroom like no other – an amazing, invaluable one. Maybe even more valuable than those two script-in-hand readings under the giant tree.

    The Oneill has always been a wonderful community of emerging, mid-career, and established artists, all co-mingling – and learning from each other. And at the end of the day, do I care if a more established writer gets a slightly-less-than-blind read? No, I don’t. But maybe that’s just me.

    Obviously I would feel differently if the O’neill put out a list that only included the usual suspects every summer. But they don’t do that. They never have. So what’s the big deal?

    If you want to be a stickler (which, Leonard, it seems like you do) then one can’t argue with you, because you’re right. But you know as well as I do that NO selection process is one hundred percent fair. It just isn’t. But as far as they go, you could do a whole lot worse than the O’Neill’s.

    That all said, I’m glad you voted to give them that Tony. They certainly deserve it.

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