Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Submission Admissions (Again)

Augh. Uff. Blech.

So, the Tony voters have awarded the 2010 Regional Theatre Award to the O'Neill Center. Honestly, the first person I thought would complain about that was Scott, since it's a bit of a stretch, I would say, to call the O'Neill a "regional" theatre. (Though, as previously noted, I'm ready to kick Connecticut out of the tri-state area.) But he got beat out of the gate by the often-acidic Leonard Jacobs of the Clyde Fitch Report. 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. This, though, is the kind of thing that pisses me off and I just can't let it slide.

Leonard is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the group that votes on and recommends an organization to the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing for the Regional Theatre Tony Award*, and begins his piece thus:

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.

He starts off with the good, listing a very long and impressive list of plays developed and presented at the O'Neill Center over the last 46 years, a list that includes Christopher Durang, Israel Horovitz, August Wilson, Adam Rapp, Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, Jason Grote and other luminaries. Several writers on the list have been there multiple times, building a relationship with the center over time. (I've heard from several writers who have been developed there that there's basically a standing invitation to come back, once you've been invited.) He notes the equally long and lustrous history of music-theatre development there and the Center's other good works and gives it a hearty huzzah.

Then he gives it, and all of the writers he just mentioned the finger. He says:
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.
Um. Leonard? What does that mean, exactly? We've heard this before. A few months ago, Rolando Teco, both of Extra Criticum and a staff member at the Dramatists Guild, leveled the exact same charges:
It is an open secret in the theatre world that of the dozen or so slots available each Summer to new plays at the O'Neill, all but 2 or 3 are pre-determined in backroom deal-making worthy of Tammany Hall.
Back then, the hubbub was a bit more about the charging of a submission fee, but the charge is still there, it's still kind of silly and it's, most importantly, wholly and completely unsubstantiated. Neither Rolando or Leonard presents a single actual case of a project circumventing the system or gaming the system or anything. They simply assert that it's an open secret. They don't even have an anonymously sourced quote or a testimonial from a playwright. It's not even hearsay.

Now Leonard doesn't exactly blame the O'Neill's A.D., Wendy Goldberg. Not exactly.
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.
She has every right to pick the season she pleases...but she has a moral duty to...what? Pick some other plays? To pick plays that she doesn't like or doesn't think are worthy of development or attention because the writers are unknown? Pick a play that Leonard liked (apparently when he first posted this piece he neglected to mention that he was a reader for the O'Neill. We'll come back to that.)? I'm really not sure what "moral duty" Wendy is being accused of shirking here. And Leonard doesn't expand or elaborate. He doesn't offer any alternative way for Wendy to fulfill her moral duty. He simply, again without evidence, asserts that she's failing it.

Leonard lays on the rousing finish:
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.
Pretty stirring stuff. So...obviously, their 2010 season, selected before all of this is jam-packed with big names, TV writers and projects that are already slated for major productions next year, right?
CREATION by Kathryn Walat
THE DREAM OF THE BURNING BOY by David West Read
FOLLOW ME TO NELLIE’S by Dominique Morisseau
CLOSE UP SPACE by Molly Smith Metzler
THE BURDEN OF NOT HAVING A TAIL by Carrie Barrett
A DEVIL AT NOON by Anne Washburn
COMES A FAERY by James McLindon
I'm not saying to toot my own horn or to knock any of these people...but I know two names on that list: Kate Walat and Anne Washburn. Maybe Leonard knows more. Or maybe you do. If anyone reading this has a tale to tell me about any of these plays or playwrights, feel free to e-mail it to me, not for attribution or acknowledgment. I'll simply post a correction, not even name the play. As long as you have a credible story that this playwright didn't go through the open submission process or has been favored by the O'Neill before, I'll recant. Please. Bring it on.

And, if you're reading this, and you happen to be one of these playwrights, please, please, PLEASE send me your story, again, not for attribution if you don't want it to be. If you know that you got in because of some deal with O'Neill and 'fess up to it, just to me (and I can keep a secret), again, I'll recant. But if you didn't, if you paid your $35, printed out your script, slapped a stamp on it and mailed it out in hope, let us know.

Back to Leonard: which of these plays was selected, not by open submission, but by a backroom deal? Which of these plays is evidence of a moral failing?

This pisses me off. It really, really does. In part because I've worked the other side of the ledger and I know how hard submission processes are on staff and how hard they work and how hard it can be to find plays you love. I also know that for most artistic staffs, you want to do as many plays as possible, but there just isn't enough space or time, there's never enough space or time. To then have people throw your choices back in your face and on literally the basis of nothing but gossip say that your choices are somehow tainted...that's a moral failing.

It's also a moral failing to treat these playwrights this way. These writers worked on their submission, worked on their plays and their mission statements and, if Wendy Goldberg is to be believed...
All of the work came through our Open Submissions process – a process
that this organization takes very seriously. It is always a joy to bring the next generation of theatrical storytellers to our campus to help these artists shape and hone their work for production.
If you're going to call her a liar, call her a liar. And then back it up with something. Something that doesn't sound like the bitching of a sore loser or hurt ego.

See, Leonard participated in this process, as he noted. And read scripts that were stripped of their names. So it was a blind submission process, which implies that it's fair, and that the staff at the O'Neill has done some work to insure its fairness. Oh, Leonard apparently (as he implies) knew at least some of the authors, though. Good for him. But none of the plays he read were selected. I'm sorry to make the leap here, but it sounds like he's saying these other plays weren't as good and got through because they're by "usual suspects." So, again, Leonard, did you read these plays? Are they bad plays? Are they not worthy of development?

I've been a part of selection processes before, both as a reader and as a staff member. I know when a process is fair and open and when it's not. I'm assuming Leonard would, too. He seems like a bright fellow. If you're saying that, from the inside, the O'Neill selection process doesn't seem fair, say it. Don't imply or dance around it. You were a part of it. For several years, you say. You would know. Were you a part of this year's? Have you been a part of one since Wendy came on six years ago? If you have, speak up. If not...then what's this all based on?

The other thing that pisses me off about this is that it's so small and petty and gossipy. All of this talk of open secrets is bullshit. It's an open secret that some open admission policies aren't the only way a season gets selected. That's true. But that doesn't mean that the open submission process isn't part of it, or that a play submitted over the transom has no shot of being included. There's never any guarantee, is there? If there is a real dereliction of duty here, if you're saying that no one of any importance ever reads any of the open submissions and all of the plays that are selected circumvented that, say it. Say it plainly and back it up with something. Otherwise, it's just a smear and it's low.

Leonard says:
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.
I'm articulating it, Leonard. But my frustration isn't with getting passed over for opportunities or feeling mistreated. It's part of the game. My frustration is with this kind of behavior. It's not journalism. It's not criticism. It's gossip-mongering and scandal-making. It's self-important, self-aggrandizing hackery. It should be beneath you.

*When I originally posted this, I wrote that Leonard is a Tony voter. That was inaccurate. I edited the post to reflect Leonard's correct affiliations and their relationship to the Regional Theater Tony Award.

26 comments:

Leonard said...

As you said, the Web is wide enough for us both. The fact is, you don't know me, you've never made an attempt to know me, and you make assumptions about me based on -- well, based on Scott, hearsay and precisely what you are accusing me of doing. Sorry to piss you off. I get pissed off by people who have never bothered to have a conversation with me.

Let's get this fact straight: I'm not a Tony voter. I vote as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. It's right in the top of my post. Right there. Could you be busy assuming things about me that you didn't read it?

Scott Walters said...

Wait -- what? What I said about you, Leonard? I have rarely referenced you, and when I have, sometimes I've said OK things. I'm not sure why I, of all bloggers, you are picking out for blame. I certainly haven;t told 99 anything.

Anyway, in response to J's sense that I would the be the first one to complain: well, I had chest pains last week, have been undergoing the usual cardio tests, and I've decided to close my moral outrage business.

99 said...

@Scott - I'm really sorry to hear about the chest pains. I hope it turns out well. But feel free to leave the moral outrage to others.

@Leonard - Thanks for the correction. I'll fix my post now to make it accurate. But. That's not really a response. I asked a number of questions. Do you have any answers?

silent nic@knight said...

I extensively posted and commented on this subject at the time. I have no heart to revisit it. No need. Besides, you’ve done a good job calling Leonard to task on this. Thanks for the sffort. He has no answers to your questions.

Anonymous said...

I think you were dishing on the guy too much - "piss me off here" "pissed me off there". What about the plays or writers? I would have enjoyed reading your considered opinions, thoughts or whatever.

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