Meet Maegan Clearwood and Lexy Leuszler, who make up the O'Neill's year-round Literary staff!
What do you do here at the O’Neill?
Lexy: I am the Literary Manager at the O’Neill. I supervise all of the application processes for National Playwrights Conference, National Music Theater Conference, all of our summer conferences essentially. I also serve as a liaison between the Literary Office and our residencies, so to help support our artists who are here in our non-summer months, who are trying to work on developmental pieces and use the O’Neill as a springboard. We provide them dramaturgical feedback, copy support, and make sure they feel supported as artists developing a new work. During the summer months, the Lit Office grows to include our script coordinator and a team of interns, in addition to Maegan and I. Together, we provide dramaturgical support to playwrights, composers and all our artists, as well as tracking and distributing all script changes throughout the summer. We are also responsible for some of the professional development programs such as the Visiting Professionals and the Playwright Observers.
Maegan: I’m the Literary Associate here at the O’Neill. I support the various applicants who come through our Submission Processes. I help lead the Literary Office during our summer months and I assist the artists in a variety of capacities while they’re on campus.
What is unique about the O’Neill's literary department?
Lexy: The O’Neill was one of the first places that decided the text was going to be first and foremost what was going to be developed on stage. Prior to our development was this idea that you would take the entire production - lights, sounds, tech, artists and tour them around and see how audiences react to that. The O’Neill—and George White and Lloyd Richards—really said that first, we need to make sure that the writers who are birthing these new pieces feel like there is enough attention being paid to their text and to their words. Literary at the end of the day means to me a hyperfocus or magnifying glass on the words that come through the text of the play.
Maegan: We support the text in so many capacities. We support the text from its very early stages in terms of actually getting it through the door and making sure that it’s processed for all of our thousand plus applications, making sure that our applicants feel like they have all of the support they need in those early stages. We support our writers dramaturgically. The O’Neill is the birthplace of new play dramaturgy, so that’s a major part of what we do. We support them throughout the developmental process when it comes to all of the script changes that happens during the summer in the rehearsal room. So it’s really a holistic approach to supporting the text, which I think makes us pretty special.
How did you get involved in theater and then find your way to the O’Neill?
Maegan: I came to the O’Neill in Fall 2014, when my position was an apprenticeship. I just came out of a dramaturgy apprenticeship at the Olney Theater Center, where I did a lot of production dramaturgy and I was looking for additional mentorship and I was looking for an opportunity to learn about Literary Management and new play support. The O’Neill is pretty much the best at that. So I came over here. I was interested in dramaturgy and new play development ever since college when I discovered what dramaturgy was. I was here for a year and then my position became a full-time position and I returned
Lexy: There’s not a lot of theater in Kansas, where I’m from. And the performing arts weren’t a primary focus of my education at that time. But I got involved my senior year of high school and read OUR TOWN for the first time. So I started with the classics. I went into theater when I went to Grinnell College in Iowa and saw a poster in the basement for NTI. It was a picture of the students doing Droznin and they were upside down, on top of each other, and I saw the tagline “Actor. Writer. Director” underneath it. At that point I thought you could only study to be an actor, so there was a choice whether to go and make theater at the National Theater Institute or the other study abroad option was I could go and watch theater and write papers on it in London. I decided I wanted to make it at that time. So I went to NTI as a student in Fall 2010. I went in as an actor and they really taught me I could be a playwright and that I could shape and morph the text in other ways outside of saying it. That I could have a hand in shaping the things that were coming out of actors’ mouths on stage was revolutionary to my brain at the time. When I was a student I was the head writer on our final project, which meant I was the one that had to collate and condense, and then distribute all the writings we had created for our final project. Then I became a Literary Intern in the following summer with and trained under the Literary team at that time, Martin Kettling and Anne G. Morgan. I later returned a few summers to support NTI’s Theatermakers program as an assistant in 2013 and Associate Artistic Director in 2014-2015. My interests are in both education and new play development and how those worlds collide. Finally, I was at Actors Theater of Louisville and their Education Department, but also supporting their Literary Department. I have also held positions at Steppenwolf and Cort Theatre in Chicago, before coming here in August. It’s very humbling to feel like I can come back and support the O’Neill in a capacity that I held with such reverence when I was a student.
How do you work specifically in supporting our open submission processes for the National Playwrights Conference and the National Music Theater Conference?
Maegan: We do a lot of outreach. We touch base with former writers who have been here with finalists, writer groups, dramaturgs with anyone who might be a touchstone in the new play world. We’re one of the only theaters in the United States to still have an open submission process, so you don’t have to have an agent in order to submit. We’re really proud of that. We try to call as many diverse writers as possible and get them through that first step. On my end, I’m the first point of contact for most of the applicants. So any kinds of questions they have come through me. We take a lot of pride in how personable and transparent our process is. We try to make the submission process really smooth from beginning to end.
Lexy: For NMTC, this year in particular is very invigorating for our brains to think about what a conference looks like under a new artistic director, Alexander Gemignani. We’re really trying to reach into the musical theater world to address needs for racial and gender parity in that field and to think of a form that is quite expensive to support and how we can best encourage those young writers as they start to enter this form. It’s another outreach tactic of trying to reach all our friends in the musical theater community and say “Hey, send your young writers this way. We have an awesome developmental opportunity for them and a very exciting artistic director.”
What advice do you have to NPC and NMTC applicants?
Maegan: My biggest tip is to think critically about why you are submitting to the O’Neill specifically. There is an opportunity in each application to write out your statement of objectives. We keep that definition super broad so that people can interpret statement of objectives however they deem fit. But, I think it’s important for writers to think really critically about what the O’Neill has to offer and how they can take advantage of that. Make that super clear to us, so that we can determine how to best support them through every step of the process.
Lexy: I think three quick phrases come to mind—be specific, be the expert of your own work, and be playful. What I mean by that in terms of “being specific” is similar to what Maegan is talking about. Be very specific about what you want from us at the O’Neill, what we can give you in that week process, and what your development goals are. Being the expert of your own work, you’re the only one who knows where your play is at and you’re the one that needs to take ownership over your work. We get a lot of questions from writers — “Can I submit an unfinished draft? I don’t know where this is going.” Yes, but you do know the baseline of your play. This is your living, breathing thing that you’ve been working on for years, the thing that you’re crafting, so tell us what’s exciting about this piece to you, and why it should be exciting to us. Tell us how you want to see it grow and how we can help you grow. Tell us why we’re good for you and what you want out of us. And “be playful” means be malleable and come to us a piece that you’re ready to dive into and get messy with, and that you’re willing to take those actors, awesome directors we will pair you with, and the literary and dramaturgical support to really let this piece grow in areas that you didn’t expect that it would. Be ready for it to take a shape that you never imagined it could take.
Besides being passionate about new plays, everyone at the O’Neill knows that you are passionate about your pets.
Maegan: Yes! I have one pet. His name is Badger and he’s a hedgehog. He hates everybody and that’s part of his charm. I think because I spent my first two years out of college in apprenticeships with communal housing in a part of life where you’re supposed to be super independent, as soon as I got out of that communal housing, I decided I needed a pet. I couldn’t get a cat at the time, so I got Badger and he has an identity crisis. He doesn’t know what species he is. It’s really cute. When we finally get a cat, his name will be Otter. That’s our goal.
Lexy: My special somebody’s name is Jeff and he is very large and cross-eyed, and everything you could ever want in an animal or something soft and squishy to squeeze. I got him after volunteering at an animal shelter. He was the cat that the other cats beat up for eating their food. So, he’s always preferred humans to other cats. My favorite thing about Jeff, particularly if I’m doing a lot of script reading at home, when I put a page down, he likes to sit on top of it. He is always there, especially if I’m reading a difficult script, I can reach down and find him sitting on top of the other pages of the script, I can always grab him.
What is your favorite part about #ONeillSummer?
Maegan: Young Playwrights Festival and the National Puppetry Conference have a special place in my heart. Young Playwrights Festival (YPF) isn’t technically part of our summer season, but it’s like mini-NPC. We bring in Middle School and High School-aged playwrights and we develop their work in a weekend workshop, similar to our National Playwrights Conference. It’s the last program right before summer kicks off, so it’s a fun warm up. It’s useful for me as a dramaturg and critical thinker to dig back into Playwriting and Dramaturgy 101 with young kids. There’s a real sense of joy and excitement throughout that process. It’s exciting to see kids who may or may not have a lot of experience in writing or theater, but don’t have the fears that a lot of adult playwrights come into the room with. They’re willing to try things and experiment and play, which is invigorating. And then we go straight into the summer and the National Puppetry Conference, which I really love for similar reasons to YPF. It’s all about imagination, breaking rules, taking risks, collaboration, and all of those wonderful components, so it’s really exciting to start with that and take that energy into the rest of the summe
Lexy: I also love the Puppetry. My first dramaturgy experience was when I came back as a literary intern in the summer of 2011 and I was the dramaturg for WAKE UP, YOU’RE WEIRD with Leslie Carrara-Rudolph. I didn’t realize that I would so deeply considering the dramaturgy of joy and just how to make people laugh, because we were going to an audience of seven year olds. I think the dramaturgy of puppetry is really fascinating and stretches the brain to many limits because you’re thinking of a three dimensional world and all the ways it communicates to your audiences.
What makes the O’Neill special?
Lexy: For me, what continually draws me to the O’Neill as a creator, as an employee, as a supporter, is that is says “yes” to every artist, no matter where they are in their education or on their path. Yes, we’re going to take you in, we’re going to find you a tribe here at the O’Neill, we’re going to help you grow, we’re going to sit here and hold the tool box for you as you find the tools that will make you the artist that you are. I love that. I love saying yes to literally everything. I love the juxtaposition of these historical buildings that seem immovable and filled with history, but there is still new history created every single day and so many new beginnings starting on such an old fixed campus. The idea that everyone who comes through is now part of our family, and we are always going to welcome you back.
Maegan: Our history is so exciting, because there are always new nuggets of our past that you can discover. These revelations that this actor was here in this year and you never knew it until you dug into some random archive and it popped out at you, or going to the Monte Cristo Cottage and actually getting to hold UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS. There are little magic moments where the past creeps through in this invigorating developmental environment that feels really special.