New Fellowship for Emerging Directors

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, in partnership with the Kennedy Center,National New Play Network and Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, announced a new National Directors Fellowship on Tuesday, American Theatre has learned exclusively.

Planned to run over five years, the program will provide a total of 25 early-career directors with 18 months of professional development opportunities and hands-on experience each, culminating in a potential directing opportunity at an NNPN theatre.

“We want to be an agent of change with this program, in terms of breaking the hamster wheel where emerging directors are stuck in this consistent track of assistant directorships,” said Preston Whiteway, executive director of the O’Neill Center. “How do you ever get that full production if no one’s going to take a chance on you?”

That’s a question Wendy C. Goldberg has been asking herself for years. As artistic director of the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference, she has devoted her time to helping writers. She brought up the idea of starting a directors fellowship two years ago when she noticed, from her own experience as a director, that there weren’t as many opportunities for rising directors as there were for playwrights.

“I’ve been a professional director for 15 years, and in the last 15 years, look at how many more opportunities have emerged for playwrights, and I can still look at essentially the same three to four programs that were trailblazers in director outreach and training,” Goldberg explained. “There’s a perception issue that because there are so many playwright opportunities that equals director opportunities.”

With a $200,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation, along with some additional funding, the National Directors Fellowship plans to welcome a new class of 5 fellows every 12 months for its 18-month program. The curriculum begins with a week at the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference at the end of July, where the fellows will observe rehearsals and potentially assist in the room, as well as attend additional seminars with industry professionals.

From the O’Neill, the cohort will go directly to the Kennedy Center for an MFA playwrights’ workshop and directing intensive, led by NNPN and the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The group will then return to the O’Neill in January for more intensive curriculum, as well as the opportunity to work on directing a play by a living writer with professional actors. The directing fellows will also have esteemed working directors available for mentoring and advice while working on these projects.

The entire program concludes with a residency at an NNPN core theatre, where the director fellows might have the chance to direct or assist on a production. The O’Neill will accept applications for the fellowship Jan. 12-16, 2015.

“We have to be certain that someone is really trying to make a concerted effort to make this their career path,” Goldberg said of what she’s looking for in applicants. “We’re also going to be looking at people who understand that we are specific to new play work, and people who really understand and are devoted to writers as a core value of what they do.”

Added Whiteway, “We are keeping it a little bit vague on purpose because we do want to find the person who didn’t necessarily go through an MFA program for directing, but who is doing great things with little visibility in Kansas City or Denver or Portland. Part of this grant is about finding folks who aren’t necessarily on the MFA directing track.”

NNPN executive director Nan Barnett said that what NNPN brings to the partnership is the ability to expose the fellows to all different forms of work across the country. “The program is going to evolve as the directors themselves evolve,” Barnett said, adding that fellows will have the chance to network with and possibly collaborate with NNPN’s 29 core theatres, as well as their associate members, who focus on all types of work, including devised, solo and ensemble-driven pieces. NNPN has theatres in 57 cities across the U.S., providing geographic diversity as well.

“NNPN matches very well with launching careers for early career directors, and this program is trying to make it easier for these theatres, which are on a smaller budget scale and don’t always have the funding to bring someone in from out of town and house them,” Whiteway explained. “It funds the director to go wherever they need to go and pays for the salary.”

With the O’Neill’s campus expansion this year, the Waterford location has 65 additional beds and more rehearsal spaces, which are helping to accommodate new initiatives like the directing fellowship.

“We’re interested to see what comes in,” Whiteway says of applicants. “We want to find the undiscovered talent.