James Houghton Resigns as Artistic Director of O'Neill Playwrights Conference

News   James Houghton Resigns as Artistic Director of O'Neill Playwrights Conference
James Houghton has resigned as artistic director of the revered O'Neill Playwrights Conference, objecting to what he called his exclusion from the board's reorganization plans, the New York Times reported. Houghton told the Times his resignation was effective immediately.

"It breaks the bonds of trust necessary with a board," Houghton told the Times, labelling their actions "unacceptable." Tom Viertel, the chairman of the O'Neill center, told the Times that plans to consolidate leadership at the center had been ongoing, and that Houghton had been informed of the strategy in July. However, Viertel added, the board decided to quicken the process two weeks ago. As things now stand, each conference at the center, from playwriting to musical theatre, has its own artistic director.

In a prepared statement, Houghton said, "In the past four years, I have worked with the Board of Trustees to confront the ongoing financial and administrative crisis of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. I have just recently discovered, in a recent meeting with its Executive Director, that a decision was made in August by the Board of Trustees, without input or participation from the Center's artistic leadership, for a long term survival strategy that would impact all of the Center's programming. The very essence of leadership, whether it be artistic, administrative or by a board, cannot flourish without a fundamental bond of trust. I resign today as a result of that bond having been broken."

A call to O'Neill executive director Amy Sullivan was not returned by press time.

Houghton's departure comes at the end of the most tumultuous two months in his short reign. In mid-September, the Playwrights Conference announced it would end the long-standing policy of open play submissions, cited a mounting debt and a paucity of staffing to read the dozens of plays which flood into the center every year. The move incited of small firestorm of protest, with complaints arising from unknown scribes as well as name playwrights such as Christopher Durang, August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein. Based on the reaction, Houghton was compelled to hold a Sept. 24 open forum at New Dramatists in Manhattan, at which dramatists could voice their concerns and grievances.

The famed development program of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center has been a seedbed for young writers and new plays by established dramatists for a quarter century. By Houghton's own admission, the controversial policy change brought on an "overwhelming" reaction. Put in the place of the open submissions policy 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.

  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.

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