Legendary theater in coin crush

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center has a new desire under the elms: Cash.

For 42 years, the O’Neill has been known for developing new work by countless American playwrights, including August Wilson, John Guare and Wendy Wasserstein. But while the mission of play development hasn’t vanished, much of the money has.

And after decades of developing no strategies for the future, administrators are starting to craft models that will lead them to financial stability. The first plan, started by the Center’s director of the Playwrights Conference, involves an outreach program to regional theaters and former participants.

Overall, the Center is about $200,000 in debt, and its current budget of $2.5 million, derived from donations, state funding and grants, barely covers operating costs. A skeletal full-time staff — which does not include positions like a marketing director — must keep things afloat.”We have no shortage of passion; we have a shortage of hands and dollars,” says Amy Sullivan, the O’Neill’s executive director.

From the outside, it’s difficult to detect the severity of the financial dilemma. This summer, it has been business as usual for the org’s many programs at the O’Neill oceanfront campus in Waterford, Conn. (The town owns the buildings and land.)

New work is developed in conferences for plays, musicals, puppetry and cabaret. Meanwhile, students participate in a summer Theater Makers program, and arts journalists attend the National Critics Institute (full disclosure: This writer was in the 2006 class).

Conferences such as Puppetry and Cabaret are boosted by student tuition, but a dearth of outside funding forces them to cut back on the scale of their work.

Sullivan says a conference that breaks even for a year is only able to do so by operating on a level far below the ideal.

She is working with each conference to address its particular financial problems and says private donations have been promising this year. However, these steps cannot alleviate a general lack of resources.

Playwrights Conference artistic director Wendy C. Goldberg feels stability will begin with increased visibility. To that end, she has founded partnerships with regional houses — including Atlanta’s Alliance Theater — to find development-ready scripts. She also has aggressively courted directors and designers from around the country.

“We are doing a better job of getting the word out locally and nationally,” says Goldberg. “I work very hard to get as many theaters as possible to see the work while it’s happening at the O’Neill. That opens us up to the whole country.”

Ironically, the most anemic programs are the most well-known. The Playwrights and Musical Theater conferences have hosted enough notable names to fill a hall of fame — recently, Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” got its start at the former, while Tony-winner “Avenue Q” was nurtured at the latter — yet neither program charges tuition. This means their budgets are supplemented only by ticket sales to public readings.

“I realize how important (the conference) has been in my development,” playwright John Patrick Shanley says of his years at the O’Neill in the mid-1980s. “It needs to be recognized as the important institution that it is.”

The O’Neill Center never worried about its future from its start in 1964 up through 2000, when founder George C. White was in control.

“Fund-raising and outreach were literally his Rolodex and his Christmas card list,” Sullivan notes. “I think the institution got a little complacent and allowed that.”

Now that White serves only as a board member — he stepped down as prexy in 2000 — the O’Neill needs a new model for attracting support.

Goldberg hopes artists will return home to spread the word about new work and the life it found in Waterford. This could not only benefit the plays, but also the O’Neill, since potential funders may be enticed by stories of a haven that brings new work to their doorsteps.

Recently, there’s been plenty of work to deliver the message. In 2005, six of the Playwrights Conference’s eight plays went on to full production or additional workshops. This year, Jason Grote’s “Arabian Nights” adaptation, “1,001,” had already been earmarked for production at Denver Center Theater when Goldberg tapped it for the O’Neill. And Darren Canady’s historical drama “False Creeds” was developed through a pact with the Alliance, which will produce the play as part of its graduate student playwriting program.

While Goldberg spreads the Playwrights Conference gospel, Sullivan is focusing on galvanizing the vast network of O’Neill alums.

But before they can be persuaded to support the Center, former participants need to know that it’s still there for them. Shanley, for instance, had not been to the Center in 22 years until he was invited as a guest speaker this summer.

In the effort to bring back more powerhouse names, however, staffers don’t want to abandon their artistic mission in favor of celebrity cachet.

Sullivan says, “I want to make sure we are never sacrificing art and artists for a marketing moment.”

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