O’Neill Theater shows its teen spirit

Connecticut org to offer youth-skewed program

Legit-minded teens may soon be able to skip the obligatory high school production of “Our Town” in favor of a hipper array of options.

The O’Neill Theater Center, the Connecticut org that hosts a cluster of high-profile theatrical development programs, will commission established and emerging playwrights to create new hourlong works about contemporary teen issues and characters targeted for American high schools.

Under the banner O’Neill Stages, the new plays will be workshopped beginning this fall at the center’s National Theater Institute, with the playwrights and other theater professionals joining college theater undergrads in developing the scripts.

Plays will then be published and promoted by Samuel French Inc. next spring and made available to selected schools for the 2010-11 academic year.

Scribes will benefit from school royalties, which could amount to significant coinage as the works are rolled out to schools nationally.

The program is modeled after the New Connections program at London’s National Theater. That series of 10 works per year has featured new plays by writers including Mark Ravenhill, Alan Ayckbourn and Patrick Marber, tackling edgy topics such as child murder, pregnant 13-year-olds and soldiers returning from Iraq.

At the O’Neill, the pilot program will begin with about six commissions from playwrights yet to be named, and center on about 20 high schools.

Series will expand nationally over the next few years as more plays are workshopped annually and added to the roster, according to Preston Whiteway, exec director of the 45-year-old center.

Wendy Goldberg, a.d. of the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and Jeff Janisheski, a.d. of the National Theater Institute, will serve as advisers for O’Neill Stages. A program director also will be hired.

The not-for-profit center will conduct an $18 million-$20 million campaign over the next three to five years to create an endowment to support the center’s new and existing programs, as well as to build new housing and a proscenium theater on the center’s 13-acre campus.

The college-accredited National Theater Institute — whose tuitions account for almost half of the center’s income — also will expand to include a music theater program for its students, reflecting an increased interest in the genre, Whiteway said.

The center also hosts the National Music Theater Conference, the National Critics Institute, the Cabaret and Performance Conference and the National Puppetry Conference.

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