Arena Stage director makes move to O'Neill conference


July 21, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

WATERFORD, Conn. -- The weather was worrying Wendy C. Goldberg on Saturday night. No, she's not a meteorologist. Goldberg is the newly appointed artistic director of the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in this New England town.

At age 31, she's the youngest artistic director in the conference's 41-year history. She's also its first female artistic director. And, as head of this prestigious summer conference -- whose alumni include Lee Blessing, John Guare, John Patrick Shanley, Wendy Wasserstein and August Wilson -- she's making the transition to the national spotlight directly from Washington's Arena Stage, where she has headed that theater's new-play development program, "downstairs in the Old Vat Room," for the past five years.

The reason Goldberg was fixated on the weather was that Saturday was the first time one of this summer's O'Neill plays was scheduled to be produced outdoors. An hour before showtime, she got word that the play -- a domestic drama called Norman Rockwell Killed My Father by Samuel D. Hunter -- would proceed al fresco as planned, despite overcast skies.

Goldberg was hired by the O'Neill at a time of upheaval. The Playwrights Conference was led for more than three decades by Lloyd Richards, former dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Things became rocky after his 1999 departure, however. Goldberg is the third artistic director in six years.

She acknowledges being concerned about the turmoil (the most recent artistic director quit one week into last year's conference). But, Goldberg said, "I was mostly concerned about what the ramifications are in the artistic community. I went into it with my eyes very wide open, and what I found in the artistic community is everyone wants this place to survive."

Among the scores of well-wishers she heard from was Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, who wrote a letter that was read aloud before this summer's first performance. In it, Vogel describes Goldberg as "a spirited, funny, deeply soulful woman who gets up everyday believing in the power of theater, and her work on stage reaffirms my belief, too."

According to Molly Smith, artistic director (and Goldberg's boss) at Arena Stage, "Wendy is passionate and ambitious and is a real fan of new work. Absolutely the right person to lead the O'Neill."

A model for many subsequent programs, nationally and internationally, the O'Neill Playwrights Conference's primary purpose is to allow writers to work on fledgling scripts by getting the plays "on their feet," often for the first time. A pair of staged readings are presented after only four days' rehearsal, directed by top directors and featuring casts that, over the years, have included such high-profile actors as Kathy Bates, Michael Douglas, Charles S. Dutton and Kevin Kline.

Although the conference has included as many as 15 plays, Goldberg limited this summer's selections to eight. A pilot Conference for Film and Television Writing runs concurrently with the Playwrights Conference, as does the Music Theater Conference (whose past hits include Nine and Avenue Q) and the Critics Institute (on whose faculty I have served).

Among the changes she has instituted is broadening the approach to each play, allowing the author to decide what will best serve the script. For example, a playwright can have a post-play audience discussion -- or not. A playwright can even have just one act read, if that's all he or she feels is ready.

"We're trying to reinvent the idea of developing plays," she explained, adding that this year she deliberately included a mix of seasoned playwrights (such as Blessing, at the O'Neill for the ninth time) and young first-timers (such as 23-year-old Hunter, whose opening turned out to be shrouded in fog).

American Theatre magazine has called Goldberg "one of the most promising theater artists working today," but growing up in Michigan, Goldberg dreamed of tennis, not the stage. Then she came down with Lyme disease at tennis camp the summer before her junior year of high school. "I was a very fit, competitive athlete, and my immune system just caved in," she said. "My lungs looked like an 80-year-old [with] emphysema."

Instead of acing shots on the tennis court, she focused on acting in school plays. At the University of Michigan, she studied with former Baltimorean Katherine Mendeloff and decided directing was the field for her. While finishing up her master's degree at UCLA, she read that Arena Stage had hired Smith. She wrote Smith a letter asking for a chance to work with her.

That led to a fellowship at Arena and eventually to being named an artistic associate and head of "downstairs in the Old Vat." In six months, Goldberg will leave Arena to devote more time to the O'Neill. She plans to travel to theaters around the country as a kind of ambassador for the O'Neill in particular and new plays in general.

"It's a very exciting, wonderful time to be here," she said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.