Wendy C. Goldberg is not just an award-winning director in her own right. She is also the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Preston Whiteway serves as executive director.
Goldberg, a passionate advocate of new works is celebrating her 10th season as artistic director of the O'Neill Playwrights Conference. Under her tenure, the O'Neill was awarded the 2010 Regional Tony Award, and many of the plays developed at the O'Neill in the past nine seasons had gone on to critically-acclaimed productions in New York and across the country.
Before joining the O'Neill in 2005, Goldberg was artistic associate at Arena Stage in Washington DC for five seasons.
Goldberg chatted with Playbill.com on the new works at the 2014 National Playwrights Conference. Can you talk about the new plays at this year conference?
Wendy Goldberg: This year we are developing six plays, and we have two writers-in-residence. [Samuel D.] Hunter and David Auburn are going to be working but not necessarily showing anything publicly.
The six plays that comes from the this season are all from open submissions and are incredibly diverse. I think they are well written. This is a diverse season. This is a celebration of my tenth season here, and I wanted to bring back two of the alumni that have been important during my time here.
David [Auburn] was just here last year to develop Lost Lake, which is going to premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the fall. And Sam Hunter — I brought him here when he was still a student at the University of Iowa. I have been at the O'Neill since 2005. My first season here was his first professional experience, and we look back to that often. Then we have six plays. The writers have been in different phases of their careers. I'm thrilled A. Rey Pamatmat is coming. This is going to be his second time here at the O'Neill. Essentially, the five other writers are new at the O'Neill.
Rey is out of school for some time. So is Mike Lew. Tanya Barfield, who is in some ways has the most production history behind her, is coming. Halley Feiffer — new play, Lindsey Ferrentino — new play. David Mitchell Robinson won the Kendada Award not too long ago. These are some of the most exciting new voices in American theatre. To have them all here is the beginning of something new and very special.
What did you do to prepare playwrights and actors for their readings?
WG: We do a lot. We talked about what is like to be here. The unique thing of being here unlike many other development conferences is that you have your workshop week and then you have the residencies. Playwrights are going to be here for a month, and they are going to be incredibly busy doing their work.
I only ask a few things: that they should come to each other first reads and presentations. They all attend wonderful dream design meetings, which [are] an opportunity where our residents' designers sit down with the playwrights before they go into rehearsal to talk about the play's world.
We also ask them to do objective statements; and objectives and what they hope to get out of it. We check in a number of times before they go into rehearsals to understand what their goals are and what they are working on. It is a long week; they have a lot of long rehearsal hours to talk through how best to use those. It is all writers driven. The actors understand they are here for the playwrights. They understand that their input is needed. Many of the plays have not been read out aloud. Many of the writers are at the beginning of their careers.
What are you doing to expand audiences to include both young and older members?
WG: It is an open submission. You never really know what is going to come through the door. I do think about relevancy. I am always looking for stories I have never heard before on stage. I do think the kind of innovative ways which all the writers are telling their stories can bring a new audience to the room more than anything. At the O'Neill we are educating everybody — young people, middle-aged people and older people — about what it means to create stories and how we are connected to it. We are huge educational environment here. We are constantly hoping to inspire people's curiosity about the theatre and their connection to it.
Since other theatres are also doing new work, what makes O'Neill's devotion to new works unique?
WG: We are the first organization in the country to do readings and workshops. And we are one of the last organizations in the country to have an open submission policy. And that I think is very pivotal to what we do.
The unique piece of it has to do with the design element. We have designers who are here so that they can have conversations with the playwrights. And also the residency aspect — writers are here for a month. It is much longer than any other development opportunity I can point to.
This environment is so unique. Not only [do we have] O'Neill's history sitting on this land in this town he grew up in. We have history of significant writers who have been here and started their careers here. I think there is something very sacred in the air and on the ground here. It is just a sheer belief to look at our beautiful landscape and to dream about what is possible and to feel connected to our theatrical forefathers. I think that has a profound effect to what comes out of here.
What are the subject and themes of this year's plays?
WG: They are all vastly different. I do think they all have central questions about identity and characters that are trying to find who they are in the world.
Do you have understudies for actors that backed out?
WG: No, and that is the worst, actually. It is really hard when people can't be ready. And I understand it happens a lot. If they [actors] get [a] production, it will get them a lot of contract works. A lot of it is that actors prepare to be here and they get call back for something. They get booked for a TV show they didn't know has to go on right away. There are millions of reasons. What do we do? We are casting all the time. We work with the casting director in New York. I think about whom I know. What do you do to make sure the actors get proper inside interpretation of their roles?
WG: The first thing: We have the first read. And I really see if they are in the right world of the play and what kind of adjustment is needed to get them into specific role. I sit back listen to the directors and writers about what they are hearing or not hearing.
Usually we cast them really well. I think the actors bring incredible amounts of talent to the table. I do talk to the actors about not [being] bogged down to the physicality about doing movement and always with the script in their hands.
What stage will a play be in before it gets workshop at the O'Neill?
WG: They come in all fashions, and the only thing that has never happened is that they have never been produced. It could have had workshop production. But the truth is that if anybody has been paid, it's off the table. We have plays that have been workshopped or developed. We also have plays that have never been read aloud.
Mike Lew's play has never been read out aloud. And that is the case for David Robinson's play. It's never been read out aloud. Halley Feiffer's play has had different workshops and she cut a character out. I read a draft that has three people now has two people. That is different from the time I chose it that led to these two characters drop. They are all still fresh and some have little more works than others.
You worked at the Arena Stage before coming to the O'Neill, and you still direct plays. Who are your mentors in the theatre?
WG: I was really fortunate when I first started out. Molly Smith is the artistic director of Arena Stage. Paula Vogel the playwright was the writer in residence at Arena Stage. That was my first job. Those two women were incredibly supportive of me to make sure I have much opportunity as possible. And that is what launched my career in DC. Another person who has been significant to me later in life is the artistic director of Denver Theatre Company Kent Thompson. He has had me come in as a freelance director. I went there six in a row and that became part of my world.
How do you balance directing and still running the O'Neill Playwrights Conference?
WG: I have always been someone who is interested in being part of a company. I think I like ushering other stories, voices that I am not ultimately responsible for telling. I like having the opportunity to be involved with a number of different people. It's tricky sometimes; I wear a number of different hats. I feel so lucky to be part of this organization like this [the O'Neill] and to move it to the next stage. To be part of it is a real honor in my career.
Where were you when the O'Neill won the Tony Award?
WG: I was directing at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and I was sitting having a brunch with my partner in Minneapolis and I got a text from Preston [Whiteway]. There has been conversation about us over the last couple of years. I think all of us thought that it won't necessarily go in that direction the fact that we don't produce work. They have to understand how much work we have put into the world. They really have to understand that. It was life changer.
The O'Neill used to have international playwrights before. What happened to that?
WG: When I first got here we were struggling financially. The way we could have international writers was securing corporate sponsorship. We also had a relationship with Abbey Theatre for a while.
They went through their own financial crisis as well [and have] not been able to do much with us. I would be very interested in trying to open it up again. We have to be really focused in trying to get ourselves back in the line again domestically.
What are people going to see differently at the 50th anniversary of the O'Neill?
WG: Some of the things that are happening right now, the building construction. We have new rehearsal facility ready. We have new housing that will be going up at the end of this year. And we are also celebrating with the publication of our book.
The O'Neill the transformation of the modern American theatre that really traces the roots of American playwriting through the lens of Eugene O'Neill, our first American significant playwright, up to the founding of the O'Neill in 1960s, and how we have touched so many lives and what has come through here. We also have an exhibit at the New York Public Library.