A dozen or so designers, writers and directors gathered around at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center might seem like an odd cast and venue for a discussion about the culture of women basketball players during the Great Depression. However, it was a vital part of the "dream design" session to which every play is subject at the annual National Playwrights Conference.
Meg Miroshnik, author of "The Tall Girls," came all the way from Los Angeles to the O'Neill, and she sat with a panel of designers and directors who helped her explore what her script would look like onstage, given an infinite budget. Miroshnik's play centers on the life of a 15-year-old girl who is forced to take care of her wild-child cousin in a poor town. One day, when a man arrives in town with a brand-new basketball, the girls in the town discover the allure of sports.
In the dream design session, the panel's unique perspective tackled issues that otherwise might not have been thought of - what a hoop built by poor young women would look like, or whether their court would be paved or made of compact dirt.
"I'm excited to use the resources that the O'Neill has given me," said Miroshnik. "I'm expecting, after hearing all of the smart questions that people have asked about my play, to really be able to put the writing process into hyperdrive."
The Waterford campus hosts the conference annually, and about 120 actors, writers, designers and directors work throughout July to produce two plays a week for four weeks. (The actual sets used for the O'Neill performances are simple and modular; the dream-design sessions are more of a teaching opportunity that allow the writer to look at their work in a more professional and practical way.)
The program is one of the most internationally recognized opportunities for playwrights to have their work put on a fast-track to success in the American theater community. Seven of last year's eight selected scripts have since gone on to more major venues throughout the country including Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Goodman Theater in Chicago, Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, The Berkeley Repertory Theater and The Cincinnati Playhouse.
This year, the O'Neill received close to 1,000 scripts for consideration to the conference. Of those 1,000, only seven were selected.
By the end of July, the theater will have presented eight script-in-hand performances of these plays, which have been heavily reworked throughout the course of the conference.
The first seven - "Provenance," "Reclamation," "Two Lakes, Two Rivers," "Hype Hero (King Patch)," "Alligator," "Orange Julius" and "The Tall Girls" - were selected from the pool of submitted scripts. The eighth, "The Way of Things," is an invitational piece written by Theresa Rebeck, creator of ABC's newset hit, "Smash."
Originally scheduled to work on a script titled "Fool," Rebeck arrived at the Waterford campus with "The Way of Things," an adaptation of William Congreve's restoration comedy "The Way Of The World." Her play focuses on a summer in the Hamptons of bed-swapping, scandal-starved socialites and pokes fun at the country's 1 percent.
Those on the O'Neill campus are particularly excited about the 2012 season, as it has matched the record for most projects going on at once in the past decade.
Playwrights Conference Artistic Director Wendy Goldberg has led the conference for eight years. She is one of many tasked with script selection.
"I'm always interested in unique voices. A new story or even an old story told in a unique way. A lot of these worlds are imaginary but not too far off from where we are now. They're talking about things that we should be looking at today," she said. "Also, I think there's a real crisis in American theater in that there's not a lot of female voices. I'm happy to say that six of our eight plays happen to have female writers."
Goldberg believes that open ing the conference to the public is one of the most exciting things about it.
"It's a really, really rare opportunity. To see a play in its infant stages. To be a part of something before it materializes into something greater. The audience's response to it shapes the writing and its future. That's something you won't have a chance to do anywhere else," she said. "A lot of times, these conferences are closed to the public, but not here. We're not doing this as a side job. Our agenda is art."