Outrage from playwrights over a proposed policy change by the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, in which it would take a percentage of future royalties from plays presented there, caused the conference to backtrack rapidly over the weekend, leaving confusion about whether the proposal was still being considered.
Late last week, the directors of the Juilliard playwriting program, Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, sent an e-mail to students warning them not to submit scripts to the conference, which presents a series each summer of readings of new plays and which has fostered the careers of playwrights like August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and Mr. Durang.
They described the proposed policy — under which the conference would, for a few days of rehearsal and a scriptsin-hand reading, demand a percentage in perpetuity of all future income from the play — as "so patently unfair, and so clearly against their own mission statement, that we can only assume they have lost their minds, or perhaps decided to think of themselves as commercial producers instead of the generous, helpful organization they used to be."
Their angry mass e-mail, however, apparently changed the course of events. In a follow-up sent Sunday with the subject line "Good News re O'Neill," Mr. Durang and Ms. Norman said that, in conversations with representatives from the Conference, including the artistic director, Wendy Goldberg, they had been assured that the proposal was off the table.
"We have their assurance that they will not this year, or in the future, be asking for a percentage of future royalties from the plays they accept for development," Mr. Durang and Ms. Norman wrote. "They are looking for other sources of funding, but those monies will not come from your subsidiary rights." Mr. Durang and Ms. Norman concluded: "So it is with great relief and happiness we once again encourage you to submit your application to the valuable O'Neill Playwrights Conference."
Calls to Ms. Goldberg and to the chairman of the board of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., which hosts the conference, Thomas Viertel, were not returned yesterday.
The one staff member at the theater center who could be reached conveyed a slightly different message from the one communicated in Mr. Durang and Ms. Norman's second e-mail. The general manager, Preston Whiteway, said that the proposal on subsidiary rights was "one of a number of changes" the board was considering to put the theater on stable financial footing and that no decision had been made. He acknowledged that the theater put the condition in a "first draft" of contracts it sent out to playwrights this summer, but "nobody was too happy about it, and we realized we had to have this discussion."
According to Tony Award-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, one playwright who received such a contract was Stephen Adly Guirgis. Mr. Guirgis's agent, John Buzzetti, immediately rejected the condition. "They said they wanted a piece of the future of Stephen's play, and he screamed like a stuck pig, and that was the end of that," Mr. Shanley said. (Mr. Shanley said that Mr. Guirgis ended up being unable to participate in the conference, in any case.)
Mr. Shanley, who had several plays presented at the conference in the mid-1980s, said he was horrified when he heard about the proposal. "I can tell you that, when I was a starving unknown playwright, I would have said no to that codicil," he said. "And I'm not alone."
Mr. Shanley described the O'Neill Theater Center and the Playwrights Conference as suffering from a "vacuum in leadership" since the center's founder, George White, and the longtime artistic director of the conference, Lloyd Richards, retired –– in 2000 and 1998, respectively. Mr. White is still on the board; Richards, who was also the dean of the Yale School of Drama, died in June.
Richards "was a major theater director and a quietly charismatic figure, and George White was a really splendid fund-raiser and a great guy. Between them, they were the O'Neill," Mr. Shanley said. Now "there is no Lloyd Richards or even lesser version of Lloyd Richards," he said. "It's rudderless."