Rejected by the O’Neill

I have heard from a number of friends that that have received word that they will not advance to the next level of consideration at the O’Neill. It may surprise some that, even though I wrote the book about the O’Neill — cleverly titled The O’Neill — I have never had a play produced there. Some have been moved to claim that “the game is rigged.” Here are my thoughts to those who are disappointed:

The O’Neill has always been intensively competitive. But it is also one of the few places where you get a fair chance even if you don’t have an agent or an MFA from an “approved” school. This is the place where David Henry Hwang, August Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Lopezes, Wendy Wasserstein, and countless others first got their shots. That’s a pretty amazing history. After 50 years (more), people will look at it and assume that it’s the establishment. And indeed it has lived long enough to have traditions and a community. But it also has opened up more doors for more people than just about any theater organization I know.

It also had a trigger effect. It became a model for countless other groups and organizations.

Including Sundance. I had a conversation with Robert Redford for the book I wrote. I mentioned how many non-New York, non-traditional voices broke through at the O’Neill. He said that he started Sundance in frank imitation of the O’Neill so as to open up film to a wider range of voices than old Hollywood was paying attention to. And that made such a difference to the independent film movement.

And, of course, Sundance itself has been widely imitated.

Anything that lasts long enough becomes the establishment. Steppenwolf is now the establishment. Second City is now the establishment. The Actors Studio is now the establishment. The Royal Court in London is now the establishment. All these outfits that started off in the margins are now the establishment. And it’s true that a rigidity sets in when you have that much history.

And this prompts a reaction that is also necessary and healthy. Other people get pissed off at these “establishment” organizations and respond by starting new groups and initiatives.

The O’Neill is not as easy to get into as it was in its first years when it flew on a shoestring and when one very generous guy quietly opened his checkbook and made up the deficit each year to keep it going. Thousands instead of dozens or hundreds of writers now apply. If you don’t like the odds, hey, the odds now are lousy.

So, take inspiration by creating new institutions and ways of building things.

I have friends who came out of Brown University with nothing in their pockets and a desire to do huge, ridiculous classics. They managed to scrape together a small sum of money and persuaded the Shaw estate to let them do an experimental version of Saint Joan with only four actors. They were brilliant and brave and within a few years they had national reputations as the Bedlam Theatre. Their Saint Joan won awards and went on to playing major venues around the country. They did Saint Joan with four actors because they had to build something cheap, and they took their poverty and made it an asset. (The Fiasco Company, also started by Brown alumni, have done something similar. Their pocket-sized Merrily We Roll Along is about to open off-Broadway. Their six-actor Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the best Shakespeares I’ve ever seen.)

I have said it before, but playwrights have got to stop allowing stereotypes to cast us as passive creatures waiting like flowers to be picked and put into expensive vases by producers with fat wallets. I’m delighted when someone in the establishment comes to me with an offer, but I am not going to get bogged down by the undoubted injustice of being ignored by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theatre, the Roundabout, MCC and all the rest of the managements that don’t have any interest in me. If they won’t give me a shot, I’ll figure out how to do something with three actors on three stools and make it good. (My last show was two people, two chairs and a lecturn. It went from the NY Fringe and a $5000 budget–most raised on Indiegogo–to a large, more elaborate off-Broadway production and two sold-out runs at Barrington Stage.)

Let me point as an inspirational example to one of the people who inspires me ever–Charlayne Woodard. She built her first solo show with nothing and opened it in a tiny space in LA to an audience smaller than the people who sit around your table on Thanksgiving. The quality of her work and her tenacity made her a force that could not be resisted.

I do think some parts of the game are rigged. I am pissed that people with MFAs from prestige universities get access that good writers without degrees don’t. (As I say, the O’Neill is a place where the degree doesn’t mean anything as it’s open submissions and read blind.) But there are strategies around this. I’ve discussed these strategies before and will undoubtedly do so again.

I will add one thing: if you aren’t a member of the Dramatists Guild and using the resources and the information there, you’re holding yourself back. You may think of the Guild as another part of the establishment, but the playwrights who run it are constantly championing the work of newer, younger people and fighting to keep the less powerful from being ripped off or bullied. Join.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at
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9 Responses to Rejected by the O’Neill

  1. Stephanie Liss says:

    Thank you Jeffrey. Powerful words, from a powerful gent…

  2. Scott says:

    I agree that being passive or angry isn’t the solution. My plays don’t get produced, so be it. I produce them. Or failing that, I get some actors in an empty theater and for a few bucks I can hear my plays read. Sometimes I learn something from that process. Occasionally I get the satisfaction of inspiration.

  3. Michael P Byrne says:

    Jeffrey…great piece. It’s very nice that you’re a good writer. Bonus. 💪💙😎

  4. Sean McCord says:

    Thank you for this. As a new (early in my career) but old (I’m in my 50s) playwright, I have much to learn about submissions and productions, not to mention the history of American theater. I have just ordered your book The O’Neill.

  5. D lee miller says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Jeff. I was a finalist at the O’Neill the first time I submitted. I haven’t submitted much since -and since then I’ve learned much more about playwrighting. I saw some fabulous readings there – but especially in this climate – with college and productions being so expensive, I look at people who’ve formed their own groups – I agree, Jeff – that is the thing to do. Put yourself out there – which is hard for lots of writers who are more loners or have jobs – but get involved.

  6. claudiaihaas says:

    I am happy for those that get in. I am also a firm believer in what you stated, “take the reins. It’s your career.” There are so many paths. Forge the one that works for the plays you write.

  7. Thanks, Jeffrey. A great reminder that the world (and the theatre world and the playwriting world) just keeps on changing and evolving. And we have to keep up with it or, even better, get out ahead of it and lead the way.

  8. DON MAUER says:

    Excellent, as always, Jeff. Solid advice from someone who actually … truly … knows.

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