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September 23, 2009


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Rolando is dead on correct. Pretty much every writer I've talked to privately feels the same way about the O'Neill, and I can't think of any of my close writer friends that bother to apply because of that fee. $35 isn't a ton of money, but it's not really worth spending if you know (or suspect) the game is fixed either.

This is true of almost all opportunities for playwrights. I know, for example, that my chances of getting into, say, New Dramatists or the Writers/Directors lab or whatever are slim to none, but I still apply because at least they're free and it's good practice to put yourself out there.

I won't pay to be rejected though. That's just fucked up.

malachy walsh

For years I didn't resent the $35. After all, the general principle behind the O'Neill is worthy. And it costs something to run. And, honestly, $35 is not a lot of money to make yourself eligible for a festival like that.

However, the application is quite arduous - you not only send them personal statements, but quite a few copies of the play in hard form and on disk which just seemed silly to me.

But I continued to apply anyway because getting in meant I might get some real help with work that mattered to me. I only stopped after I realized that the work they chose was so unlike mine that I simply was not ever really in the consideration set to begin with.

So I moved on.

However, in 2007, I got an email from them that suggested they were specifically interested in reading my work ("based on your past submissions") and hoped I'd send them something - despite the historical evidence (I was never on a the short list) and my own understanding of their tastes. When I got the form letter rejection from them, I shot back my own letter to Wendy Goldberg stating my feelings.

One of their head lit guys actually called me about it - which I respected, until, during the call, it became clear that all he really wanted to know about was the O'Neill's reputation among playwrights I might know. (It was a very strange conversation.)

The O'Neill's an important festival, and I'm sure will remain so. And should.

But I have to concur with others here: except for the collection of money, I don't know why they bother to have open submissions. The people who work there are fairly familiar with the American writing landscape and could simply pick whoever they wanted without having to read anything new from anyone new.


I vote that we ban Open Submission policies altogether. They are disingenuous at best. They give artistic directors and literary managers a pass on doing the hard, leg-work work and research required to find great writers for the long term. And they allow playwrights pass off one copy, an envelope and the right stamp as participating in the community. Then later we all complain about why theater people don’t come see our shows.

Jason Grote

I dunno. I got into the O'Neill on an open submission and I didn't know anyone there at the time. One could argue that the second time I went up was unfair and/or based on my prior relationship with them, but the fact is that there are always plenty of writers in residence that no one's ever heard of (including myself in 2006, though it's not like I'm famous now).

If there is a problem with any or all of these labs, it's much less about nepotism and more about a bunch of preconceived notions about things: for example, writers with MFAs get into more of them, not because of "connections," which I certainly didn't have (NB: when I went to the O'Neill in 2006, a faculty member from NYU, where I went, said to me, "oh, I didn't know you wrote plays"), but because of a certain degree of aesthetic standardization, which is sometimes related to aesthetic quality but also a sort of artistic bias (working at the W/D Lab I learned how to tell a Brown play from a Brooklyn play from an NYU or Juilliard play on a single read). I also feel compelled to add, having worked in the sausage factory myself, none of them are that fair -- resume, word of mouth/reputation, and the agenda of the reader always come into play -- but none of them are entirely unfair, either.

I'm not going to defend submission fees, though. Both the O'Neill and Sundance should get rid of them.

Jason Grote

I just want to point out that the application fee for Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School is $25:


Where is the outrage?!


I should say, I wanted to write a follow up post because i've gotten some e-mail pushback on this, and I want to air as many viewpoints as possible buuuut... so far, i haven't gotten permission to quote them. so thanks jason for posting in the comments.

also: i want to go to werner herzog's film school. that thing looks awesome/hilarious.


I have a tangential question to the issue of fees for the O'Neil:
What actually constitutes being a "finalist" at the O'Neil? Do they have to specifically tell you in the rejection letter that you were one of the final 40 or so from which they whittled down to the 12 who got a spot at the conference? Or do you just have to submit to put on your resume that you were a "finalist"?
I'm curious to know people's feelings on this, not just as it concerns the O'Neill, but any conference/retreat/fellowship, etc. How far along in the process do you have to get before you can ethically claim on your resume/bio that you were a "finalist"?

Jason Grote

Every place tells you if you're a finalist or semifinalist, and just putting it on your resume could potentially reflect badly on you -- by the way, I was both of those at the O'Neill (and had applied 3 or 4 times) before I ever got in. This is true of many people who get into these things.

I would add: there are plenty of things in the American theater that we can all get legitimately angry about. But there are no conspiracies afoot. Sure, plenty of awful plays get way more attention than they deserve and plenty of great plays get short shrift, but really, if you write a really good play, someone, somewhere will do something with it. It might not be the people you originally wanted, but what in life ever turns out exactly as planned? The question of whether or not to even write plays at all, well, that's another horse entirely.

Dropping submission fees would go a long way towards expressing good faith -- as far as I can tell, the selection procedures for New Dramatists or the W/D Lab are no better or worse than the O'Neill or Sundance, and in some cases even involve the same readers -- but, just to play devil's advocate, submission fees are pretty standard in film and fiction and no one seems to complain about it very much.

And I genuinely do want to go to Herzog's film school.


off topic:

"and just putting it on your resume could potentially reflect badly on you"

heard this from others. wonder what the reasoning is since clearly there isn't often enough room for everyone who might be deserving...

can you explain your take?

Jason Grote

I meant, putting that you're a finalist *when you weren't* reflects badly. Like, I would have been on a selection committee for group (a), where a playwright -- let's call him Herner Werzog -- has been rejected flat out. Then, a year later, I'm on a committee for group (b), and I notice that Herner has added to his resume that he was a semifinalist for (a), which is essentially a lie. This will not reflect well on Herner.

Otherwise it's worthwhile to put on there but honestly doesn't make a huge difference.


Thanks, Jason, for clearing that up. You bring up an excellent point about the fact that you never know who will be on any selection committee, so it pays to be honest.

Lindsay Price

I used to submit to the O'Neill and I wanted to believe it was open for all. But it's not and so there are a couple of choices. Continue to bang on a door that may, or may not open. Go find another door.

I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't say I would love to find O'Neill opening it's door for me. But I'm pretty happy having turned away from it as well.

And they'll keep on having a fee so long as writers keep paying it...

Ian Thal

The expectation is that if a festival is charging a submission fee that the submissions are going to be judged by the same standards of quality. If the autodidact is simply not as good or not as interesting as the Juilliard graduate, that's a fair reason to reject the autodidact's work, but the Juilliard graduate's work should not automatically be allowed to pass the first cut at the expense of the autodidact's work simply because "Juilliard" appears on the resume.

In fact, it behooves a high profile festival to make an extra effort to diversify the types of work presented (including the works of autodidacts,) quality permitting, much as many universities strive to have a diverse student body and faculty.

I don't know how justified the charges against the O'Neill might be, but the $35 fee certainly demands a level of accountability and transparency that playwrights, whether they are "connected" or they are "outsiders" can put trust in.

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