Tales from The O'Neill: The National Playwrights Conference Begins

By Sophia Saifi
July 5, 2013

Playbill.com offers an overview of the National Playwrights Conference at the  Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. 



The idyllic grounds of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center have been over run by thespians. The National Music Theatre Conference is at its peak with two successful performances already wrapped up, and writers and journalists have arrived to take part in the National Critics Institute. Every Monday night, students from the National Theatre institute display their skills with open performances.

Tiny cliques have sprung up on the campus. Actors walk around in flip flops and sarongs after a day at the beach, writers mull over their work in the shade of the porch while designers hold court around a perpetually smoking grill. The scent of the sea and charcoal hangs heavily in the air.

In the midst of this organized chaos, the National Playwrights Conference (NPC) has officially begun its month-long period which will end on the 28th of July. The NPC is the flagship conference at the O'Neill, and it is the event that set the ball rolling in making the Tony Award-winning O’Neill one of the premium regional theatres in the United States.

Wendy, C Goldberg has been the artistic director of the NPC for almost a decade. Under her tenure the NPC has flourished and grown with leaps and bounds.

Each conference has its own characteristics and the White House, which has traditionally housed the office of the artistic director, has now assumed the garb of the NPC. Desks have been moved and telephones installed, and Goldberg's assistants print schedules and oversee logistics while sound designers sketch and read.

Goldberg runs a tight ship and she explains the process of the NPC with great precision.

After many years of tinkering, the "magic number" for plays to be worked on at the O'Neill has been set to eight she said. Each week two plays are worked on and culminate in performances over the weekend. Actors, directors and playwrights have four and a half days of rehearsals to get on top of their game. EveryThursday, playwrights get to sit down with a team of designers and take part in a "Dream Design" meeting where they work together to visualize their work.

"It’s a lot,” Goldberg said. "We always say that a day of rehearsal here is like a week of rehearsal every where else. There is so much that happens. There are so many changes. It's a very intensive environment, yet with this idyllic setting and with this limited access to the Internet, and without outside interferences, people just focus (on their work) in a different way here."

The plays reach the O'Neill after an extensive open submission policy and each play has its own cast, director and dramaturg. 

"The O'Neill is one of the first and of the first places in the county to do this," said Goldberg.

Anyone who has written a play that hasn't been produced professionally can submit it to the NPC, regardless of them having an agent or not.

"This particular season we reached the most submissions in my time," said Goldberg. "1100 plays."

It is a process that has become synonymous with the O'Neill. "It’s very important to us," explained Goldberg. "We closed the submissions in 2004 and there was an outrage in the theatre community."

It was reinstated the following year.

Seven of the plays this year have been selected through the open submission process with one invited participant. This year’s honor goes to David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Proof. He is writing a script for the O'Neill which be directed by Goldberg herself.

In different parts of the campus carefully bound scripts are at hand for anyone interested in reading them. Martin Zimmerman's Solid Sand Below, Lauren Yee's Samsara and A Great Wilderness by Samuel D. Hunter are already in process. Performances have been staged under the branches of a large copper beech tree, in the open-air Edith Oliver Theatre.

There is a dedication to good work at the NPC, devoid of any ulterior motive.

"We are looking to move projects from the space here into the world without any financial connections," said Goldberg with great conviction. "It's just a philosophical urge to put good work out in the world."

Tickets for the National Playwrights Conference performances may be purchased online at theoneill.org or through the box office at (860) 443-1238.