Amid Controversy, O'Neill Center Loses Yet Another Artistic Director

Waterford — J Ranelli has resigned as artistic director at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center seven months after taking the job and just as two of the center's major events — the playwrights and music theater conferences — begin their monthlong run.

Ranelli left “for personal reasons,” according to a statement released by the O'Neill. When contacted by phone Monday, though, Ranelli characterized his reasons for leaving as professional, not personal.

O'Neill Executive Director Amy Sullivan said, “The bottom line is, putting on a conference of this magnitude is a tremendously exhausting and overwhelming creative challenge. It really is. I believe, and I think most people do, that J has put together one of the most exciting conferences in years. I think the work is thrilling. For whatever reason or reasons, he felt he needed to withdraw himself.

“The one thing I can tell you is he did say he was worn out. I think understandably so. I remain completely, completely convinced of his creative genius and ability and am indebted to him for all he did to partner with me ... in this renaissance of the O'Neill.”

Ranelli said it wasn't that he was exhausted — “my stamina even amazes my doctors” — but rather that “the burnout, if that's what it was, was professional frustration. ... I did say on a couple of occasions that I had been worn out by the institutional practice of avoiding direct confrontation of serious issues.”

He said he preferred more frankness, “putting all your cards on the table and then working on the problem.” He also spoke about his belief that the center needed more set policies, something he acknowledges a group of employees is working on, instead of depending on ad hoc decisions.

Ranelli also said he is concerned the center is not aware of the true complexity of its various programs and of developing more exchanges among them, which was part of his job.

Sullivan said Ranelli resigned verbally “on a number of occasions” and resigned in writing about a week ago, with the resignation accepted this past weekend. Several board members contacted by The Day on Monday morning had not heard that Ranelli had left and were surprised by the development.

Sullivan declined to go into more detail, but did say, “The chairman of the board was informed immediately, and we had hoped to find some way around this. ... We had been trying to see if we could move this in a different direction.”

The timing of the resignation comes just as the music theater and playwrights conferences are gearing up. But John Pike, O'Neill spokesman, said Ranelli's leaving “is not really affecting anything during the conferences because of everything J had done prior to that. ... Everything was set up weeks ago.”

Taking over the reins as interim artistic director is Richard Kuranda, who is the O'Neill's artistic associate and the producer of the playwrights and music theater conferences. Kuranda is also the artistic director of the Epic Repertory Theatre in New York.

O'Neill officials said there will be a national search to replace Ranelli.

“It's not fun picking yourself up and starting again to find someone to do this job,” board Chairman Tom Viertel said. “But each time this (someone resigning) has happened, the outpouring of support from significant figures in the theater ... has been really striking. It's clear there are a lot of theater people that think what the O'Neill does is crucial to the health and future of the theater.”

The past year has been a period of turmoil for the O'Neill. In the spring of 2003, Executive Director Howard Sherman announced he was leaving after a three-year run, saying he wanted to return to working for an organization whose primary purpose is producing theater; he has since become executive director of the American Theatre Wing, which runs the Tony Awards program. Sherman was the O'Neill's first director after founder George C. White retired. Sullivan was hired as Sherman's replacement last September.

Also in September, James Houghton, then head of the Playwrights Conference, changed the way plays were submitted for the conference. Instead of an open submission policy, an anonymous panel of theater experts nominated playwrights for consideration. The move created an uproar among writers.

Then, the O'Neill created the position of an artistic director to oversee all the center's artistic programs. Houghton resigned in October, saying he was not included in the O'Neill's decision to consolidate its artistic leadership under that resident artistic director.

Ranelli was hired in December as the center's first resident artistic director. In January, the O'Neill reinstated its old open submission policy for scripts for the Playwrights Conference. In February, the center announced it was holding both its playwrights and music theater conferences at the same time, in part as a way to enable more interaction between the programs.

Despite the upheaval, Sullivan said, “I feel we're actually on more solid ground than we have been in a long time.”

She said the O'Neill has had its most successful fund-raising year, raising more than $700,000 in a 10-month period.

The O'Neill has also been chipping away at debt, bringing it from $1.2 million in 1999 and to under $700,000 now.
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