Theatrosphere’s TalkWriting

Theatrosphere’s TalkWriting

As the saying goes, rumors are as old as God. The first rumor was one that jumped the species barrier. The snake whispered sweet nothings in Eve’s ear, telling her “rumor had it” that the forbidden fruit was ripe with hidden promise. Eve swallowed the story whole. Like all rumors, the serpent’s tale had an element of truth. Knowledge would be the godlike quality in man, but as other scripture reminds us, the flesh is weak. Facts are hard or cruel and truth is often inconvenient. But the half-knowledge of rumor is sexy and seductive. Rumors are whispered intimately with cupped hand into our ear. Serpent, lover, propagator of sweet nothings…we’re your playthings now and forever.

While rumors have been with us throughout human history, in our new world of digital communication, rumors have become ubiquitous and fast spreading as evidenced by the emergence of debunking sites such as,, and

False rumors can be especially distressing to institutions. Not only can they inflict real damage, they often resist correction. The O’Neill Center is one of the preeminent theatre institutions in the country, so when I read this post at Extra Criticum discrediting their business practice, I was wondering what their reaction would be, if any.

It is an open secret in the theatre world that of the dozen or so slots available each Summer to new plays at the O’Neill, all but 2 or 3 are pre-determined in backroom deal-making worthy of Tammany Hall.

No affiliated print journalist would have been allowed to make such a potentially libelous statement without an authoritative source confirming this “open secret” as something other than just gossip. On the other hand, if the rumor were true, this would be a great story and scandal; i.e., “It would sell a lot of newspapers.”

We read about print publication shrinking daily. Along with this decline in the medium, old-school objective art journalism is also disappearing. We are entering a new era of personal, subjective theatre “talk-writing.” This new genre of “journalism” doesn’t appear to have inherited the same protocol and/or ethical standards of its predecessor.

In the TalkWrite establishing itself in blogs, the distinction among fact, hyperbole, rumor, and opinion is a fluid one. Although there are a handful of critics, most of the theatre bloggers identify themselves as artists, with the largest percentage being playwrights. So as this genre of writing becomes more pervasive, it will be interesting to note how the historical dyad of Artist/Critic will suffer the changes.

A couple days after his blog post, Rolando Teco (aka Roland Tec, playwright and Director of Membership at the Dramatists Guild) repeated his allegation of this “open secret” in the Dramatists Guild’s September 25th e-Newsletter. He expands the charge to suggest that scripts are being selected for commercial potential rather than artistic merit and further claims that commercial interests have hijacked the O’Neill’s mission and that the open submission process is a charade to get grants.

Although in the newsletter post he edits out the hyperboles of his Extra Criticum post comparing the O’Neill process to “Tammany Hall” and “the government of Myanmar,” he inserts a fresh embellishment suggesting that his “open secret” rumor is based on some reality and has caught traction.

This year, however, something seems to have changed. Or so it seemed to the countless playwrights who spontaneously erupted into a cyber chorus of complaint heard on theatre blogs here, there and everywhere.

A blog search shows that a total of three blogs linked to Roland(o)’s “open secret” post. Three sites render his claim of “theatre blogs here, there, and everywhere’” technically just an exaggeration, not an outright lie. Except that one of these blogs, THE LOOP, simply prints Roland(o)’s Dramatist Guild newsletter post verbatim as an article. Oddly, without a byline.

THE LOOP claims to be a community of playwrights, lyricists, librettists, and composers. The Senior Editor of THE LOOP is Gary Garrison, who is also one of the writers at the Extra Criticum blog where Roland(o) first spread the “open secret” rumor. Gary Garrison is also Director for Creative Affairs of the Dramatists Guild.

Regardless whether the “cyber chorus of complaint” by “countless playwrights” on “theatre blogs here, there, and everywhere” is hyperbole or fabrication, the whole of this characterizes a new form of theatre TalkWrite with as many similarities to gossipmongerism as to journalism. Much closer to the “true story,” perhaps the only story here, is more venial and everyday: Two playwrights on the Dramatists Guild staff attempted to propagate an unsubstantiated rumor about the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference on their blogs and through their Guild newsletter.

So if there were to be a real journalistic inquiry here, it would be how knowledgeable the Dramatists Guild Council is of the actions of its two staff members. Are Tec and Garrison rogue agents in spreading this malicious piece of gossip, or was it with the approval of their employer?

It would ordinarily be deemed unseemly for a respected institution like the O’Neill to kowtow to false rumors, even if the gossipmongers generating such rumors were the staff members of an equally respected institution. But that’s exactly what they did. In the October 9 Guild newsletter, Gary Garrison tells of having had several phone calls with Wendy Goldberg (National Playwrights Conference’s Artistic Director) and Preston Whiteway (O’Neill Theater Center’s Executive Director), inviting them to respond to the allegations. Their response is the same one now on the NPC web site titled “Open Submissions Process Description”.

Each year, NPC solicits scripts from the field for consideration in its summer landmark event, and takes this solicitation and selection process very seriously. The O’Neill typically receives 800 scripts during this month-long window. The plays are then sent to readers across the country-the work is read blindly and narrowed down into a semi finalist pool and then a finalist pool. This process is maintained by our on-site literary office and is monitored carefully.

The majority of selected plays come from this Open Submission process. Each year, there might be one or two invitations for a prominent playwright to participate, and this policy has been in place since the inception of the Conference, under Lloyd Richards. For example, in 2009, seven plays were developed, five of which came directly from the Open Submissions process, one from our international Irish project, and one from an invitation. In 2007 and 2008, eight plays were developed, five from Open Submissions, one from the Irish Project, one from a collaboration with the Goodman Theatre, and one an invitation.

The O’Neill takes its mission for the discovery of new work and artists to heart. The leadership team at the O’Neill and the National Playwrights Conference is committed to the Open Submissions policy. This means that the majority of plays developed will be drawn from this pool each summer. Any other characterizations are false. Invitations or collaborations will be in the minority, but will always be a part of the mix, as they help launch conversations with a larger national field.

Note the O’Neill’s bold text in the above process description, not once, but twice, to emphasize that the “majority” of selected plays come from this Open Submission process. This is obviously a direct response to the Tec/Garrison cyber-rumor that there is “an open secret in the theatre world that of the dozen or so slots … all but two or three are spoken for long before the first $35 check has cleared.”

In the October 9 Guild e-newsletter Garrison decided he should reclassify Roland(o)’s post in the previous e-newsletter as an Op Ed. This is a dodge and simply reclassifying the post from “news” to “opinion” will likely not appease all the dues-paying dramatists complaining that their Director of Membership was sending out misinformation, perhaps even disinformation, in their newsletter.

Gary titles this Guild e-newsletter post “Old Eyes and New.” He offers no facts or evidence for why the O’Neill open submission process should be questioned. But he does imply that the “open secret” rumor should be reexamined… that perhaps the O’Neill no longer beats its wife. As “senior editor” of the Roland(o) post, that’s probably as close to a “retraction” Gary could get without actually confessing to spreading gossip, but he does have another uneasy confession to his fellow dramatists. He discloses that it is not just old eyes v. new eyes fueling his perception, but also the green eyes of jealousy of those peers who were accepted into probably the most prestigious playwright development program in the country.

Rejecting 800 playwrights each year will always create a rich environment for rumors about how the open submission at the National Playwrights Conference is administered. So transparency and facts alone will never completely counter rumor/opinion-based blog and e-newsletter posts. But this type of conversation once belonged almost exclusively to the informal chat of dinner parties. Now it has thoroughly permeated our written, public record. From the early theatre listservs to the blogosphere, our digital correspondence is ushering in a new generation of TalkWrite, and with it a new ethic of behavior in theatre as well.

No doubt some playwrights are celebrating Tec/Garrison for forcing the O’Neill into “accountability” despite their method. In fact, if they suffer neither social nor professional consequences for spreading this false rumor, it’s probably safe to assume that their behavior is acceptable to a significant percentage of the Dramatists Guild membership that these two staffers represent, not to mention the theatrosphere hosting this new TalkWrite.

Who in culture has custody over truth in language more than writers? Playwrights, poets, novelists and other wordsmiths are entrusted with this obligation, more so than even journalists. So it’s discouraging to know that this was not the first time that playwrights representing the Dramatists Guild have published their “op-ed” in service of an untrue rumor.

In a high-profile incident in 2006, Guild President John Weidman and 22 other Council members published Op-Ed letters of outrage surrounding the alleged behavior of the Chicago Sun-Times theatre reviewer Hedy Weiss. Prominent American playwrights like Kushner, Albee, Durang, Hwang, Shanley, and seventeen Council members, described Hedy Weiss’ behavior with such frenzied adjectives as “scary”, “shocking”, “destructive”, “outrageous”, “obscene.” These playwrights so vehemently attacked the critic in response to an allegation that Weiss had explicitly been asked not to review workshop productions in a festival and had done so anyway. This “rumor” proved to be false. The theatre producer had actually encouraged the press to attend and Weiss had reviewed the same festival in the past without objection.

The official “Guild Statement” to the debacle is from President John Weidman in the form of a letter to the Sun-Times editor coupled with a comment from Guild’s executive director Ralph Sevush. Together they read more like a repositioned fresh attack on the hapless Hedy Weiss than an apology, likewise this equivocal characterization of the statement within the statement.

A number of DG members were also upset by the possible inaccuracy of the Guild’s position in this matter. So, in light of the new information, Mr. Weidman wrote a follow-up letter to the Sun-Times, in which he stated, “to the extent that I criticized Hedy Weiss inaccurately, I was unfair and I regret it.” However, he also made the further point that “writers must be allowed to evaluate their work in a environment protected from critical appraisal, and professional critics should be expected to review an entire work, not just a few minutes of one.”

Note the phrases “possible inaccuracy” and “in the light of new information” as being cause for the John Weidman letter. Even when in the below comment executive director Ralph Sevush finally does have the Dramatist Guild take ownership and responsibility for the false rumor about Weiss’ behavior, he attempts to mitigate liability by saying she was nevertheless guilty of some crime(s) deserving criticism.

And the Dramatists Guild bears some responsibility here too, for not first double-checking with other sources regarding the accuracy of the Theater Building’s allegedly unequivocal statements about Ms. Weiss’s conduct. But, as Mr. Weidman said in his letter, “what I regret most deeply is that that inaccuracy may undermine the valid criticism of what she wrote about these eight teams of authors.”

Within the pseudo-apologies put forth on this page is a link to the earlier John Weidman letter to the Sun-Times editor and the original Guild Statement contextualizing it. Which means that the false rumor about Hedy Weiss’ behavior that incited the whole brouhaha still sits there.

The review was written by theater critic Hedy Weiss, against the expressed wishes of the festival, which had asked Ms. Weiss not to review any of the works since they were still in the developmental stage.

As striking as it is to see this now confessed piece of libel still published without an amendment next to it, the sentence below is even more remarkable in highlighting how the TalkWrite in theatre is shepherding in new ethics in behavior as well.

You can also read the messages of twenty two Guild Council members who wrote in support of the Guild’s position and to voice their individual concerns about the irresponsible behavior of the critic and the newspaper.

Of course you can no longer link to these once public statements. In lieu of individual public retractions or apologies to Weiss, the 22 letters from the Guild Council dramatists were simply “de-published” from the Dramatists Guild web site.

The hope is there was never any consensus among the 22 Council dramatists on what to do with their collective individual statements. The hope is that at least one or more of the most respected writers in American theatre would object to retreating so meekly and unceremoniously from their words.

Throughout history society has devised various ways for individuals to correct or atone for their wrong words. Sometimes the price has been stiff. Wrong words in the form of heresy or treason might even demand a death sentence. Our American founding fathers fought duels over the dishonor wrought by wrong words.

Today, wrong words about another individual generally demand no more than an apology. Or if the wrong words are placed in the public realm, then a public retraction or apology is offered. But is it now acceptable behavior to simply “de-publish” false words without assuming any responsibility for their wrongdoing?

In the new TalkWrite, rumor apparently no longer need make concessions to fact. In this particular instance, the Tec/Garrison post has been neither amended nor even “de-published.” Such rumor-based posts bluster briefly in their false bravado. With a shelf life too short to warrant intervention, they quickly fade back into their natural state of irrelevant gossip. This blog post now sits at the LOOP in its most accomplished and essential form… a story without a byline. Much like the “open secret” rumor it highlights, the tale has no author or identifiable owner to take responsibility for its existence.

24 thoughts on “Theatrosphere’s TalkWriting

  1. Nick,

    Thanks for pointing some of this out. Full admission: I, too, linked to Rolando’s original post. I will go back and put a note and link to this post.

    You may be familiar with the site Foetry, now defunct. For many years, they sought to expose the fraud of “open” academic small press fiction and poetry contests that charged fees.

    The typical post would include reporting of how say, the last five winners of some prize were almost invariably connected to, or even had been students of, one or more of the judges. They would also sometimes contact the organization to give a chance for them to respond.

    It is valuable consumer alert as far as I am concerned: If you choose to pay 30 dollars to enter this contest, and you did not go to this MFA program, understand your odds. And who else was going to do this. But, in the case of Foetry, I’m not sure it was gossip, since they seemed to have done their homework and at least contacted the organizations and tried to obtain internal records.

    Here is just an example of what they would do: (The site has been defunct since 2007 so I can’t vouch for all of the links.)

    I used to say that the power of blogging will come once bloggers start picking up the phone.

    Some bloggers do this, Thom Garvey does interviews and most recently reached out to Emily Glassberg Sands on the Gender study. Bill Marx, Rob Kendt, and Leonard Jacobs are others. However, they were once or are currently, print writers. They have been editors and/or worked for editors.

    Maybe the theatrosphere isn’t working hard enough to be its own collective editor? Or is that even possible.

    Complete Side Note: I wonder. The O’Neill’s response should not be taken at face value either, right?

    Not to be too contrarion, but their Re-clarication of the guidelines harldly fills me with confidence.

  2. Good point, Art, and just what I was thinking. Nick’s criticism of Extra Criticum (and those who repeated its claims) is apt. But Nick himself doesn’t seem to cite any facts showing that the “open secret” was in fact wrong. Do you have any such evidence, Nick, aside from the denials of the O’Neill Center?

  3. Thomas, Tony,

    This wasn’t a piece of investigative journalism, so I am not sure what evidence or facts I should be checking. The only facts I am commenting on here are the published statements I quote. I am primarily writing about the new species of TalkWrite and the nature of rumor. I am definitely not defending the O’Neill beyond saying that it’s difficult for anyone to defend against rumor.

    I did talk on the phone with Martin Kettling, Literary Manager at the O’Neill about this a couple weeks ago. And I am also subscribed to a listserv where he posted a direct response to this rumor. I am satisfied that the open submission process is how they describe it on their web site. But again I am not investigating that.


    I believe the Dramatists Guild has assumed a similar role to Foetry. They feel obligated to investigate entities that charge fees for play submissions. That’s a good thing I think. But this was not a good thing; this was not an investigation. Two staff members deliberately floated a rumor and misinformation.

  4. That’s ok – and your criticisms of Extra Criticum are certainly valid. Still, I hope you realize – and that everyone realizes – that what you’re offering here is basically rumor vs. press release. Perhaps those are the two natural poles of the “theatrosphere.” But as Tony points out, are they really so different?

  5. Thomas,

    Fair enough comparison on the surface. But of course rumor, as well as the hyperbole often found in press releases, predates the theatrosphere.

    The difference is that, unlike rumor, in press releases you can point to actual facts, enhanced as they may be. Rumor has only supposition, not fact, as its basis. “Thomas, do you still beat your wife?” You might tell me you don’t have a wife, or that you never had a wife. But the presupposition, the “open secret” is that you do have a wife. You keep her locked in a closet in Kenya with Obama’s real birth certificate.

    As for Tony, he gave a non-read, a TwitterHead read, of what I wrote. He linked to me from his “TweetDeck.”

    Tony’s twittered link to my post is “Pot meet Kettle.” Such unique elocutions are the next phase of TalkWrite our culture is exploring. I rest my case.

  6. But why not rest your case after actually calling or connecting with the O’Neill to try to get some facts? Perhaps they have data to back up their claims.

  7. Not to mention that, unlike rumor, press releases are often accompanied by a contact name and number: a source who can be consulted for verification of the release’s facts, such as they are. True, press releases are not sworn statements. And neither are rumors. The difference is in accountability and a name attached to the statement. Short of conducting some kind of Emily Glassman Sands statistical study of submissions and acceptances at the O’Neill Center, I’m not sure you can scientifically verify anything.

    Anecdotal evidence is precisely that: anecdotal. And such anecdotes are the stuff of rumor.

  8. And Nick DID call the O’Neill Center: “I did talk on the phone with Martin Kettling, Literary Manager at the O’Neill about this a couple weeks ago,” he wrote in an earlier response, and the numbers — the data — are in the O’Neill statement. Believe it or don’t, but there they are.

  9. Nick, you’ve done (and are doing) the exact same things as the posts you’re writing about, so to take some sort of high road is hypocritical.

  10. George is right — Nick has made an effort to write a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and to some extent fact-checked post. The main focus of his post — that the theatrosphere would rather deal in rumor and high dudgeon than actual reasoned thought — is what is bringing down the wrath. In a dysfunctional system, the person who speaks about the dysfunction is made the villain.

    As far as the O’Neill issue is concerned, the larger issue may be the level of frustration that would lead playwrights to automatically accept a rumor as truth. That is something those at the O’Neill might want to consider.

  11. To add to Art’s point about the Foetry website: Though some of the rumors of corruption within the poetry competition circuit did not check out, Alan Cordle and company did sufficient research to demonstrate that some very high profile competitions were, in fact, corrupt in that they were soliciting reader fees and giving awards to people with personal relationships with the judges.

    I don’t know if anyone has presented credible evidence that something akin is occurring at the O’Neill or not, but it seems to me that there should be some watch-dog and some transparency when the O’Neill uses promises of an “Open Submission Process” in order to solicit ~$28,000 (800 * $35)of playwrights’ money every year.

  12. Ok, George, he spoke to her on the phone, but . . . hmmm . . . somehow that led to his “not being interested in investigating this,” which doesn’t exactly banish all doubt, does it. And to Professor Walters – there’s no “wrath” here; I don’t really have a dog in this fight (which feels more like a cat fight, anyhow!). One just ends this “thoughtful, well-reasoned” post without a better sense of whom to believe, which I think is unfortunate.

  13. Oh so great to have you back, RS! Please give Ms. Feast my very best. And can I just say – You’ve still got it! Of course, between Walters, Garvey and Jacobs, you’ve got some stiff competition now.

    For me, gosh, I really, really hope that the “Open Secret” is true. Not to be out of the box, but I think we really need to question whether Open Submissions are good for the theater community. I think not so much.

    I want people working in places like the O’Neill to earn their pay, I want them saying what plays are worthwhile, and I want them standing behind their selections. Open Submissions provide an opportunity for paid leaders to abdicate responsibility with a, “hey, we can’t produce what we don’t get in the mail.” No way; they need to get out and see the work and meet the artists, and earn their pay.

    And come on, we know a lot of these people who pick plays for one program or another – their hearts are almost always in the right place, and they usually do a great job. We always critize them only in general, but individually, we all love these people. Let them do their jobs.

    And the playwrights need to do their part for the community, too. They have to get out there and work their way up. Participate. It’s more than just copies, envelopes, and stamps.

    My best example is someone like Mac Rogers. He has worked hard to build buzz and cred’ for his writing, and I have no doubt that soon enough his work will be chosen by such organizations. But if he has to compete with 800 others just cuz they have the postage and an entry fee, I’m worried we’ll miss his tree from the forrest.

    Please god, let the “open secret” be true.

  14. Speaking directly to this TalkWrite thesis, here are some stats via Google Analytics about who is reading this post. Those arriving via the link versus those arriving via the twitter link.

               Number of visitors        Average time on site
    GeorgeHunka    12                   00:27:40
    Twitter              16                   00:00:15

    Resistance to superficial or lazy thought would consist of engaging with one type of reader, while disengaging from another. Not so easy for me. Rat Sass once enjoyed crafting witty ridicules for the numb-nutted reader and commenter. I am trying to change my ways.

  15. Please god, let the “open secret” be true.

    The problem is that if the “open secret” is true, then the O’Neill can be construed by some as being engaged in fraud.

    The situation is that the O’Neill is requesting $35 and in return, the playwright is supposed to get at least a fair shot at being picked for one of X number of slots.

    What the O’Neill’s accusers have charged is that most of the X number of slots have been selected before the $35 submission fee is even deposited in the O’Neill’s coffers.

    No one would begrudge the O’Neill for choosing focus their support to plays and playwrights that they believed to be promising as opposed to ones they do not find promising, but money has exchanged hands at this point.

  16. Hi Ralph, I am with you on how playwrights need to present their work. I was thinking about our relationships with the “rat” playwrights. We knew the person as much as we knew their words. Especially with the “language” playwrights like Ruthie, Erik, or Jeff, the play script on initial readings is often inaccessible. Insisting on having the playwright participating as an ensemble member would change the landscape radically. Of course it will never happen large scale. Yet it is to these rat theatres, in all regions across the country, that playwrights need to present themselves. Not as Stamped Envelope but as full-bodied theatre peer ready and willing to produce.

    In our phone conversation Martin Kettling was saying that if journalists were searching for the truth about the Open Submission they would contact writers the O’Neill hosted over the years. He pointed out a current participant, Lauren Gunderson, who had sent in submissions for five years running before being accepted. Let’s hope she was doing her work elsewhere during those years. The hype of “career” attached to such places as the O’Neill kills the spirit of more young playwrights than anything else.

    The “open secret” is that there is a life in theatre for most who desire it. There is a career for very few.

  17. Again the question is:

    Are most of the slots being filled by something other than the stated Open Submission Process, a process by which the O’Neill, by its own accounts, takes in $28,000 a year?

    If the evidence points to “yes,” then the O’Neill is engaged in unethical behavior.

    I don’t know whether the evidence is credible, but I do know that the aesthetic value of the plays that are selected is not an ethical justification if the accusation is true.

  18. Ian,

    “I don’t know whether the evidence is credible”

    There is no evidence, only rumor. That is the central point of my post.

    You must have arrived here from the Twitter link.

  19. Actually, I arrived from Art Hennessey’s write up on Mirror Up To Nature.

    As I said, I’m not passing judgement yet as to whether the accusation is true. I’m just pointing out the ethical implications of the accusation, and that the aesthetic defenses that some have made (See RLLewis’ contribution to this thread) are not counter-arguments if the accusation turns out to be at least partially true.

    The counter argument to this accusation is transparency, not “no we’re not” and certainly not “Please god, let the “open secret” be true.”

    Given the scandals that rocked the poetry world a few years ago, it’s important that any literary institution (including theatres) charging a reading fee show transparency.

  20. Ian,

    Ralph can speak for himself if he feels the need. But most readers realize what he wrote was tongue in cheek… suggesting that a good scandal showing corruption of Open Submissions might serve the agenda he was putting forth. He wants playwright dissuaded from mailing in script submissions, and get out in the real theatre world.

    Agreed about the transparency. So what is missing or wrong in the “Open Submissions Process Description” as it now sits?

  21. Wasn’t planning on returning to this thread, but since i did….

    Nick is correct above. Sorry you missed the humor in it, Ian.

    If money changes hands, then the script should be considered, sure. My point was more about the flawed OS process to begin with. It’s not good for our community, because it promotes laziness and easy answers that don’t work. And people who see themselves as righteous by trying to fix it may be the ones keeping us from finding a better solution.

    Thanks RS.

  22. Ralph,

    I could tell that you had your tongue in cheek, but even with this explanation, I’m still not clear as to the target of your critique.

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