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

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[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.

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).

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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