Beyond Broadway: The Broad View
The hands-down greatest experience of my writing life was not in New York City. It was in the tiny town of Waterford, Connecticut.
Waterford may not be a bustling metropolis, but it is something of a theater Mecca, as it is home to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The center began 50 years ago as a grassroots effort to transform a derelict barn and decaying Victorian mansion into a place where playwrights and other theater practitioners could come develop their art far from the stifling environment of Broadway. It has grown to be a stopping place for many of the great writers, as well as the great plays and musicals that have been created in this country since then.
(I hope that, for some of you out there who work outside the Big Apple, the question that comes to mind after reading that is, “Why not here?” If a tiny town in Connecticut can become a bustling hub of musical theater development, what would it take for that to happen in your own area? Or if that’s not where your interests lie, what other opportunities can you create? Because ultimately, any arts institution began as one person with an idea and the willingness to work.)
Over the summer, the O’Neill is home to national gatherings for playwriting, puppetry, theater criticism, and (most relevant to us) musical theater writing.
Those lucky musical writers get to spend two weeks on the O’Neill campus, with its rolling green hills, antique mansion houses, and five-minute walk to the beach. They work together with a professional cast, director, music director, dramaturge, and what seem like thousands of eager interns, all focused on supporting them and refining their show. At the end of the first week, there’s a staged reading complete with live audience. Then the writers go back to revising and working, and they have two more readings the next week in which to view and respond to the results of their effort.
It is glorious.
I particularly wanted to speak with someone there for this series because they have something of a bird’s eye view of current musical theater writing, seeing as how they get hundreds of new musicals submitted to them each year.
“This year we were considering 267 projects. Last year that number was 215. And the year prior it was 176. So it’s going up really quickly.”
That’s Anne Morgan, the O’Neill’s literary manager (who began her own career at the O’Neill as one of those eager interns).
So, Anne. The O’Neill only develops a small handful of musicals each year (“Anywhere between two and four. This summer we will be doing three.”), so what do you look for in the material that is submitted?
“We are looking for work that is ambitious, fresh, engaging, provocative and theatrical. That has a strong point of view. And then there’s some basic theatrical things: we want well-developed characters, we want it to have a structure. In terms of what the O’Neill is and can offer, it really does need to be something that can be performed in its entirety, because the staged readings are a part of what we do. But we also don’t want it to be so close to finished that the writers might not make changes while they’re here.”
And since this series is focused specifically on writing outside of New York—do you have a sense of how many applicants are from New York versus elsewhere?
“I’m so glad you asked! We do a survey of our applicants every year. The survey is separate from the application process, because we’re evaluating the work, not judging the writer. I’m looking over the last three years of survey results, and it looks like every year, somewhere between 45% and 60% of applicants are coming from New York. The remaining percentage is sort of split out over the rest of the country, with California usually coming in between 5% and 15%.”
Wow, that’s actually a much smaller percentage of New Yorkers than I imagined. (Go, Team Outsiders!) What are the numbers like when you’re just talking about shows are selected to be developed there?
“Anecdotally most of them come from New York, but last summer we did two, and one team was from New York and one team was from the Boston area.”
So even without statistics, your impression is that there’s still a pretty large chunk of New York writers that make it through the selection funnel. In past installments of this series, I’ve spoken with people who think there’s a pretty strong bias towards New York writers, and others who think there actually is a difference in quality and that writers from New York are just better. With your perspective of seeing so many musicals from so many places, where do you side on this scale?
“I think there are more people writing in New York, period, than anywhere else. So I think just the math of it all… it’s sort of a self-feeding bias. So if 10% of any submission pool is really excellent, then a lot of that is going to be coming from New York because there are more people writing there. And then more people move to New York, and I think it keeps feeding.
“I also think there’s some really exciting work that comes from outside New York, but I think New York also—for better or for worse—is an environment where people who are writing have more opportunity to see other work and to speak with other writers, which I think is obviously going to have an impact, usually for the better.”
I think that’s actually the bird’s eye view that I was looking for. What Anne is saying is a remarkably clear summation of the themes that have reoccurred over the course of my interviews.
Like Alisa Belflower told me, right at the beginning: New York has the benefit of a high density of writers, who can soak in each other’s work and learn from each other. But as Cheryl Coons talked about, you can create your own community, wherever you are. Aaron Jafferis and Byron Au Yong even proved that technology makes it possible for your collaborative community to reach farther than ever before.
Nan Barnett at the National New Play Network showed me there are new resources being created all the time that we need to take advantage of. Clay Mabbitt, the theater marketing expert, taught that there are skills we can use to become more appealing to the theaters and audiences we are writing for.
As for me, these conversations have me excited to see what I can make happen in my own little corner of Oklahoma. I can’t say I wouldn’t be thrilled to have a show on Broadway one day, but wherever I am, I can create new work and share it with people, and that’s my own definition of success.
What is your favorite musical?
AM: I can only pick one? If you accumulated my favorite musical every day over the course of my entire life, I don’t know if this would be my favorite musical of all time, but today I’m going to go with Sunday in the Park with George.
What is a dream project of yours?
AM: My dream project is a project that I’ve already been a little bit of a part of. It’s a project that Sam Wilmott has been working on, was in residence with it here in 2013. He’d been working on it, and I worked on it with him as a dramaturg. It’s a project that I love, and really I hope that great things happen for it, but I would also really like to still be involved with it when it goes on to bigger and better things.
As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?
AM: Success is happy writers. I feel like, if success for a writer is a successful workshop at the O’Neill, then how do I make that happen? If success for a writer is leveraging their experience at the O’Neill to get grants or fellowships or productions, what can I do to help make that happen? I think success for me is helping writers find success, however they define it.