A Beacon for Writers: What's Wendy C. Goldberg Up to at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference?
Grote, Jason, American Theatre
Even before attending the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference last summer in Waterford, Conn., I knew I had a few things in common with its artistic director, Wendy C. Goldberg--our ages, our Brooklyn addresses, a shared an interest in new plays. One passion I hadn't realized we shared, however, was skateboarding. The 32-year-old director developed an interest in the sport while working at the 2005 conference on Wendy MacLeod's Thrash (about a young journalist pursuing an elusive, semi-retired master skateboarder). I brought my own skateboard to the 2006 conference so I could practice in the parking lot, away from any risk of injury or humiliation I might face in New York. This is, in fact, an apt metaphor for my experience at the O'Neill--the conference is well known as a safe place for playwrights to skin their proverbial knees. And beyond that, skating seems emblematic of the direction in which Goldberg wants to take the conference in the 21st century--youthful, fun and slightly dangerous.
The metaphor only holds up so far--skateboarding is arguably more mainstream than theatre these days, and let's just say that as a skater I make a good playwright.
Nevertheless, Goldberg's 2005 appointment as head of one of America's most storied play-development retreats marks what might be a seismic shift. Founded in 1965, only a year after the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center itself, the Playwrights Conference is the earliest iteration of what has become a juggernaut, a cluster of O'Neill-sponsored gatherings on music-theatre, puppetry, cabaret and criticism, as well as numerous educational programs. The Playwrights Conference remains a cornerstone, however, and Goldberg's directorship is key.
"I think boards of directors are turning to people of my generation because we have an ability to be accessible to younger audiences," Goldberg told me in a recent interview, "but we're old enough to have had a profound education in our art, to speak well about our artistic visions, and to seek out new ways of operating, both fiscally and organizationally." As is well known to readers of this publication, contemporary theatres must court that most hotly sought-after of demographics--the youngish culture aficionado who might otherwise be at a concert, film or gallery--without alienating their existing subscriber bases. When selecting her O'Neill season, Goldberg says she looks for "theatrical events that blur the lines between text and spectacle, that are sociopolitical, idiosyncratic and [stay] in touch with contemporary trends in other artistic media as well as popular culture. I'm always fascinated by what a theatrical audience is excited by--and I love it when what once was perceived as a 'downtown show' has moved uptown."
Of the eight projects chosen for development in 2006--Adam Bock's The Receptionist, Darren Canady's False Creeds, Jorge Ignacio Cortinas's Bird in the Hand, Ursula Rani Sarma's The Exchange, Laura Schellhardt's The K of D, Tommy Smith's Air Conditioning and his play for young audiences The Tale, and my own 1001--all were adventurous, whether structurally, linguistically, topically or all three. And they were accessible. This isn't unusual--today's young playwright is as likely to be as conversant in the well-made play as he or she would be with absurdism, or Brecht, or experimentalists like Paula Vogel, Erik Ehn, Maria Irene Fornes and Mac Wellman.
Tommy Smith's Air Conditioning, for example, plants the tropes of absurdism in a naturalistic structure; by placing his surreal tragicomedy in the world of McMansions and suburban sprawl, he exposes the ludicrous excess at the heart of that world. Ursula Rani Sarma's The Exchange similarly challenges expectations. "My intention was to create a play that looked like a traditional Irish play but which was actually a subversion of the form," she told me. By pushing that form to extremes, her lyrical, riveting work evokes the tumultuous social and economic changes in contemporary Ireland. …