Put in its place at the Connecticut operation will be a selection system anchored by an arbitrating "National Selection Committee" of 150 theatre professionals. The committee, which is currently being formed, will nominate 250 dramatists, who in turn will be invited to submit full scripts. The plays will be given to the committee anonymously for evaluation. Fifteen writers will eventually be invited to the Playwrights Conference.
O'Neill Playwrights Conference artistic director James Houghton, who assumed his position in 2000, said in a prepared statement, "At a time when many theaters are eliminating or drastically reducing their development programs, nurturing writers and new work for the stage remains at the core of our work at The O'Neill. The positive experience of playwrights and other artists who participate in The O'Neill's vibrant community has inspired more and more playwrights to apply to the Conference. In the past year alone we saw an increase of over 200 submissions, and we just do not have the means currently to increase support in order to consider this growing number of applications in a fair and thorough process. The decision to suspend open submissions was not made lightly, but with sincere disappointment after a great deal of thought and struggle. We are still extremely concerned about reaching out to unknown writers and will continue to make every effort to do so."
In the United States, nearly all major nonprofit theatres welcome script submissions only through agents or recommendation by established theatre professionals. The O'Neill Center was one of the last major play-workshopping organizations to accept texts from young and unknown scribes with few if any professional connections.
The O'Neill's decision follows a trend taking place across the nation. Most recently, the Denver Center Theatre Company recommitted itself to a new-plays program, but for scripts that come in through professional channels. "The DCTC does not have the resources to review literally thousands of unsolicited submissions as has been our experience in the past," said artistic director Donovan Marley. "As director of new play development, Nagle [Jackson] is charged with seeking out significant new work through agent interviews, personal visitations to professional venues nationwide, active correspondence with co-workers in the field, and whatever else it takes."
These developments are disappointing to fledgling writers. "In the past, the conference offered a nurturing environment to up-and-comers," said Justin Pelegano, who describes himself as "young, aspiring playwright." "Speaking for myself, I viewed the O'Neill Conference as one of the last prestigious havens for those of us struggling on the fringe. But not anymore. Apparently, the conference has gone the way of every other so-called 'playwright-friendly' theatre institutions whose submission policies, in reality, make it virtually impossible for us to get a foot in the door." Christopher Wilson, executive director of The Dramatists Guild, which includes in its membership playwrights with agents and those with no resources at all, was more conciliatory. "Certainly one can understand—they must get thousands of scripts each year—that it would be judicious to have [the submissions] vetted," he said. "On the other hand, it wouldn't be desirable, depending on the selection mechanism that's installed, if young voices don't get heard."
The O'Neill Center was founded in 1964 by George C. White and is made up of six programs, for which the Playwrights Conference is arguably the most famous. Hundreds of plays have been read, workshopped and revised on the center's Waterbury grounds since then. John Guare and Christopher Durang were among the writers to receive early assistance from the conference. Guare's The House of Blue Leaves was developed there, as was Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others (a breakthrough play for her), August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Fences and the musical Nine.