For the first time in the 40-year history of the Waterford, Conn.-based Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, a resident artistic director has been named. J Ranelli, who as a Wesleyan University student participated in the institution's founding, will have jurisdiction and influence over the O'Neill's range of programs, including its annual Playwrights Conference, Music Theater Conference, Puppetry Conference, and Critics Institute.
The appointment of Ranelli, a director with Broadway and regional credits who also helped to create the O'Neill's college-accredited National Theater Institute, comes one month after the abrupt resignation of James Houghton, who had served as artistic director of the Playwrights Conference since 1999. Houghton claimed he was excluded from a fast-track plan to reorganize the O'Neill under the vision of a single resident artistic director. Houghton had also been under fire for announcing an indefinite suspension of open submissions for the conference, citing fiscal concerns.
O'Neill Executive Director Amy Sullivan, in a statement accompanying the new appointment, said Ranelli possesses "both an appreciation of where we come from and an inspiring and impassioned vision for our future." To which Tom Viertel, the board chairman of the O'Neill, added, "An artistic director who can bring a cohesive vision to our activities is essential if we are to sustain or expand upon our mission. I cannot think of a better choice than J Ranelli. His continuous association with the O'Neill and the range of his accomplishments in the theatre and in education qualify him uniquely to lead this redefinition of the O'Neill Theater Center's relationship to the wider world of theatre."
In an interview with Back Stage on Fri., Dec. 5, just two days after his appointment, Ranelli outlined what shape that "cohesive vision" might take. At the same time, he sought publicly to soothe the wounds left by Houghton's sudden departure.
"When Tom and Amy suggested the possibility of becoming the O'Neill's first resident artistic director, my first interest was in making sure that my ideas were congruent with theirs: that interproject collaboration, which was one of the catalytic qualities of the O'Neill when it was founded, was a priority; that there would be an exchange of artists, talent, and goodwill between everyone."
More specifically, Ranelli sees opportunities for the participants in every O'Neill program to play overlapping roles. "We want to stir the pot and get things going so the accidents of creativity can be supported. Like puppets, which are finding their way into more creative uses than just on Saturday morning television. Today there are performance artists, there are dancers who talk, there are cabaret actors, and there's the whole question of what theatre is and is becoming, and how the O'Neill can serve that. And we want to refresh the process of discovering and nurturing new voices, new American dramatic writing. And who knows what forms await us: After all, Valium and Post-its came out of research aimed at other things."
Step one on Ranelli's agenda is to "restore the collegiality and communications between the O'Neill and its artists so we can work together." Acknowledging that Houghton's decision to suspend open submissions for the Playwrights Conference caused "hurt feelings" in the industry, Ranelli took care to note that "the O'Neill has thrived because of the generosity of everyone in the profession, so the first step of healing is to make sure that every artist is recognized -- that doors aren't closed, that bridges aren't burned -- and that whatever communication problems led to hurt feelings are remedied."
Somewhat more to the point, Ranelli disclosed that the O'Neill will "unsuspend" the open submissions suspension "as soon as we can, and it may be sooner rather than later." As for Houghton's rationale for the decision -- that the O'Neill could not afford to pay readers and the administrative costs associated with an open submissions process -- Ranelli declined to offer his analysis of the O'Neill's current fiscal situation. However, he is "meeting with some of our more established playwrights because we'd like to create a playwright advisory group that can stay with us as we figure out how to make a Playwrights Conference that really is committed to new voices. We'll do what we can to offer such an environment, and it seems to me that open submissions are a part of that process."