Philadelphia Theater Co. dramaturg Michele Volansky calls them tree frogs -- playwrights lurking about, desperately waiting for a theater to scoop them up and give them a home.
Recently, writers from tree frogs to frog princes came down in biblical proportions upon the O'Neill Playwrights Conference, a summer retreat for writers to workshop new plays, after it made a controversial decision to stop accepting unsolicited submissions.
On Sept. 24, a week after the O'Neill announced its decision, around 100 playwrights showed up to a now-infamous meeting at New Dramatists to express their concern to Conference artistic director James Houghton. (The center's financial straits, but not the controversy over the new submissions policy, played an indirect role in Houghton's sudden resignation from the O'Neill last week. See story, page 48.)
Even before the controversy, writers felt frustrated. After Sept. 11, the harsh economy forced 54% of 112 nationwide nonprofit theaters in a recent Theater Communications Group survey into deficit for their 2002 fiscal years. Such troubles have caused cuts in literary staffs and, some say, increasingly conservative programming choices favoring revivals or well-received Gotham plays over premieres.
The O'Neill was "a beacon of hope" for young playwrights to gain exposure, as Houghton put it, and when it shut its doors, that was simply the last straw.
Though reactions ranged from understanding to irate, most sympathized with Houghton.
"Trying to go through 900 pieces of material for a company that isn't about producing, isn't going to make any money in exchange for doing them and isn't asking for sub(sidiary)-rights participation is a daunting task," says agent Beth Blickers, whose agency, Helen Merrill, was allowed just two nominations and had to find other nominators for its clients.
But now that the dust has cleared, the question remains: Are opportunities for undiscovered playwrights dwindling, or is this recent uproar just a symptom of young scribes' perpetual angst?
Some say things aren't so bad.
"I don't think there's this sense that the rug's been pulled out from under us or anything," says Ann Filmer, managing director of scribe-nurturing org Chicago Dramatists, which now produces at least one world preem a year. "I think it's been tough all the time."
Others think there has been a temporary dip.
"There are probably fewer opportunities because of the economy and everything being what it is," says playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose big break came with "Fuddy Meers," a play he workshopped at the O'Neill in 1998. "I don't think it's at a historical low point. I think playwrights have always felt like there's no way to break in. I'm sort of lucky that if I have a script I want to be seen, I have a couple places I can go."
But some, such as Todd London, a.d. of Gotham's New Dramatists, an org with the mission of nurturing its 48 emerging to midcareer member playwrights, say opportunities have been steadily declining over the last decade. Though there are more theaters, London says, there are fewer slots for productions, especially "significant productions of new plays by unknown playwrights, and by significant I mean when a playwright can actually earn some royalties ... that the pages of American Theater magazine or the pages of Variety will actually cover that work."
"The number of slots for doing a new play is diminished," agrees Volansky, the president of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas. Volansky's theater also recently ended unsolicited submissions.
Hard numbers that might decide the issue are scarce.
What's certain is that Seattle Rep, Denver Center Theater, Dallas Theater Center, San Jose Rep, Berkeley Rep, and Seattle's Intiman Theater and A Contemporary Theater have made cuts in literary staffs, as the Northwest was hit especially hard when the dot-com bubble burst (Berkeley Rep and Denver Center Theater scaled those cuts back, however).
Seattle Rep, for example, stopped accepting unsolicited inquiries, cut its entire staff and the number of performances per show by 20% each and initially slashed its productions from nine last season to six this season (and world preems from three to one). But on Oct. 15 it announced the risky endeavor of two additional world premieres in early 2004.
Another blow was the closing of play development organization A.S.K., where, says Volansky, the "likes of me sort of looked to see who was coming out of the West Coast, and the loss of that is profound."
This past summer the O'Neill cut back its conference from four and a half weeks to three and a half. Plus, only 11 writers (down from 15 in 2002) were allowed into "playwrights heaven," as five-time vet Adam Rapp describes a program that combines emerging playwrights with biggies like August Wilson and Lee Blessing in a bucolic rural setting and only asks of the playwright, "What do you need?"
The number of theaters accepting unsolicited full-length scripts has been dwindling over time. Playwrights Horizons is the only high-profile Gotham theater that still accepts them. A.d. Tim Sanford or a member of his three-person literary staff reads the 1,000 they receive annually and responds within six months, a policy that requires a huge institutional commitment.
"A literary office is a cash flow drain," says Playwrights literary manager Lisa Timmel. "I bring in no money for this organization."
Sanford says he's never produced a submission by a writer he's never heard of. A promising play by an unknown will instead lead to a meeting or a reading.
In fact, many professionals find a healthy amount of relationship-building between playwrights and theaters.
Mark Bly, head of the Yale School of Drama's graduate playwriting program, says although there are fewer production opportunities, "There has never been a time when playwrights in the U.S. have had more opportunities to send their work to theaters to have theaters do readings and workshops," and many agree.
But London is skeptical of theater-sponsored development.
"Playwrights perceive those quote-unquote development opportunities to be non-developmental. They're doing a lot of rewrites to please other people, and those other people aren't producing them anyway."
For example, London says, in the 1980s playwrights "lived on NEA grants" given directly to individual scribes, which have since given way to the NEA/TCG Theater Residency Program for Playwrights, where theaters have more of an upper hand.
Fortunately, the O'Neill's cutbacks have a silver lining where relationship-building is concerned. According to Houghton, last year 900 writers sent unsolicited proposals (a synopsis, character breakdown, 10 pages of dialogue, and a letter of intent) and the conference requested full scripts from 175 of them.
Now that this initial step is eliminated, readers from around the country will have time to read all of the 250-300 scripts they're expecting. Like last year, each full script will be read by at least two readers, and a group of finalists (last year it was 45-50) will each be read by at least two people in the nine-member selection committee. More top professionals reading scripts means more exposure for young writers.
But it's difficult even for Houghton to laud his decision, as he hopes to eventually bring back unsolicited submissions.
"What I was encouraged by, ironically is that people were so upset," he says. "It means that people value the Playwrights Conference and they value what it symbolizes."
Hang in there, tree frogs.