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Taking Stock This Summer at the O'Neill

People are talking at the 2001 Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. logo
Director Michael John Garces and playwright Brooke Berman
"on campus" at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
(Photo: A. Vincent Scarano)
It has been described as the "changing of the guard" and the "passing of the torch." Now in its second year under new artistic director James "Jim" Houghton, the 37-year-old Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, has undergone the kind of subtle facelift that only the wealthiest of dowagers can carry off. Both physically and spiritually, the whole organization looks spruced up and feels revitalized, the nips and tucks to the original not unlike the very process of play development that the O'Neill was designed to foster.

Occupying several acres of artfully landscaped grounds, the O'Neill has been dubbed "the campus" by the myriad playwrights, directors, actors, and interns who've come up for a month of "theater boot camp," during the past 36 summers. Co-founders Lloyd Richards (artistic director until his retirement in 1999) and George C. White (executive director and CEO, who retired just last year) first established their common dream of a National Playwrights Conference to encourage and develop the playwright's voice in this sylvan setting back in 1965. Set against a spectacular view of the Long Island Sound, several newly painted, bright yellow buildings, house the various components of this efficient theater engine where playwrights--15 this year--are annually invited to develop their work.

Each year, from the 600 to 800 nationwide submissions received, approximately 12 to 15 playwrights are selected through 'blind' readings (no top page identifying the author is attached to the scripts) to attend the month-long Playwrights Conference. Once here, they work intensively during a grueling four and half-day rehearsal period with director, dramaturg, and actors to further develop their work via two script-in-hand staged readings featuring minimal costumes, a suggestion of sets, lights, and even some sound. These presentations have always been open to public view, though not to review; however, each play was also publicly critiqued under Richards' personal supervision.

Last summer, the O'Neill ushered in the 21st century by turning over the reins to Houghton, the boyish artistic director of New York's Signature Theater. Naturally, he instituted several changes in what he and his new executive director, Howard Sherman, agree is "an ongoing institutional evolution." Houghton immediately opened up the play selection process, recruiting over 60 theater professionals across the country to "blind" read for the selection committee. (Houghton does reserve the right to name two writers of his own choice.) Two other major changes involve the "branding" of the O'Neill name and doing away with those public critiques.

Brand New
As we chat on the front porch of the Hammond Mansion (which houses the press office, the library, the sound studio, several guest rooms, and the all-important kitchen/dining areas), Sherman explains the so-called branding. "Anyone coming up to Waterford for the conference always said, 'I'm going to the O'Neill,' even though the full title was The National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. So I convinced the board to substitute the word O'Neill for National in all our programs, including the Cabaret Symposium, the Critics' Institute, the Music Theater and the Puppetry and Playwrights conferences." There's also a sharp new logo that says simply, "the O'Neill."

Only the National Theater Institute retains its original title. But it too acquired a new director, David Jaffe, in 1999--the same year that the OCI mantle passed from the late Ernie Schier to his longtime friend and second-in-command, critic Dan Sullivan. And, this year, Betsy White retired as executive director of the Cabaret Symposium. So there have been changes across the board. Another new O'Neill project involves several observerships for directors and various teachers. Sherman hopes the latter will stimulate interest in new plays at the classroom/grassroots level.

No stranger to new play development, Houghton spent five years at the O'Neill-inspired New Harmony Project in Indianapolis, the last three as artistic director. Yet he had never been to the O'Neill until he came to observe during Richards' last year. Sitting in his office in the beautifully rebuilt White House (named in honor of George White's parents, but painted the ubiquitously cheery O'Neill yellow), Houghton talks about some of the changes. "First of all," he notes, "the playwrights always lived 'off campus,' which meant that valuable creative time was spent in transit. Now all the playwrights stay right here on the grounds in the White House, so they're always where they need to be. And, the morning after each presentation, the director, the dramaturg and the entire audience would critique it--but the playwright was not allowed to participate. They were outsiders at their own critiques!" Those sessions have been replaced with all-conference meetings, often featuring a guest speaker and attended by all O'Neill participants. Here everyone is introduced and encouraged to mingle by both Houghton and Sherman.

"Remember, guys, mix it up," Houghton cheerfully admonishes at the all-conference meeting with Neil Pepe, assistant director of the Atlantic Theater Company. A dozen or so guest speakers scheduled this season include Zelda Fichandler (the former A.D. of Arena Stage, currently director of the graduate acting/directing program at New York University) and playwrights Edward Albee, Romulus Linney, and Jeffrey Sweet. Veteran performer Alvin Epstein (Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot starring Bert Lahr!), here to play Morrie in

Edward Albee and James Houghton, watched over
by Eugene O'Neill, at the O'Neill Center
(Photo: A. Vincent Scarano)
Jeffrey Hatcher's Tuesdays with Morrie, also shared his life in theater with the interns during an informal lunch. Life seems much more collegial at the O'Neill than it used to be.

"When I finally did come up to the O'Neill in the summer of '99 to observe Lloyd," Houghton says, "I assumed I was one of the few never to have been here before; but I discovered that none of my actor/director friends had been here, either. This invaluable theatrical resource had been, with all due respect to my predecessors, a 'closed shop' for too long. Twelve to 15 plays were done with more or less the same company of actors under the same five directors, year after year. I have great respect for what's happened here, but I firmly believe that every play should have its own director and cast. I also believe everyone should come back for no more than say, three years at a time, so that there's always a ratio of 60% to 70% new people."

New Faces for the New Millennium
This sweeping change has brought a plethora of new faces to the O'Neill, including directors at every career level, from such vets as Gerald Freedman (former artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and currently executive director of the North Carolina School of the Arts) to many in mid-career: David Esbjornson (The Play About the Baby), Evan Yionoulis (Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine), Melia Bensussen (Krisit), and Liz Diamond of the Yale Rep, plus several new(er) "kids" on the directing block, including Michael John Garces, Ethan McSweeney, Susan V. Booth, and Daniel Fish. None had ever worked at the O'Neill during the ancien régime. But the Houghton/Sherman team hasn't thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Among the familiar faces still on campus are Phyllis Kaye, the official staff historian, who's been with the O'Neill since its inception in 1965; G.W. "Skip" Mercier, the scenic designer since 1983; and Max Wilk, senior dramaturg since the early '80s.

"There's a very exciting 'born again' feeling up here now," says Mercier over lunch on the mansion porch, a favorite after-rehearsal place for actors, writers and directors to congregate and talk shop. "Of course, I feel really connected here. But since design at the O'Neill is basically 'moving the modules,' the real excitement for me is working with all these great writers. So much of my life in the theater is about 'making it work,' but up here we get to explore the work. And there's a thrill in not knowing who the director or actors will be." Kaye, a Waterford resident, has a billion O'Neill stories; she tells me, for example, that the mother of 2001 playwright Cusi Cram (Lucy and the Conquest) acted at the O'Neill some years ago in a play with Meryl Streep. "Skip, Max, and I are the roots of the O'Neill," she laughs. "Maybe we should go on the road to spread the word."

Wilk, the wry, white haired O'Neill elder statesman, began writing for television when television began--and he wrote a book called The Golden Age of Television to document it all. He was originally invited to the O'Neill as a dramaturg/story editor when Richards first began accepting television plays at the Playwrights Conference. Sitting in Blue Gene's Pub, the O'Neill watering hole-cum-late-nite cabaret, Wilk recalls some early participants, including director John Pasquin (L.A. Law, thirtysomething) and writer/producers Rick Cleveland (The West Wing, Six Feet Under) and Richard Dresser (The Madigan Men), who has also been a playwright at both the O'Neill and Actors Theatre of Louisville. "After six or seven years," Wilk explains, "the program expanded to include screenplays--and then the whole media thing ended about four or five years ago. So I asked why I couldn't dramaturg a play as well, and here I am.

"You know, it's interesting," Wilk remarks: "The O'Neill nurtured a great many gifted playwrights. and quite a few have returned. But 'playwrotes' [one-play wonders] don't come back!" Among the playwrights returning this year are sixth-timers Lee Blessing (Cobb) and Jeffrey Hatcher (Scotland Road), plus second-timer Keith Reddin. The latter's first play, Life and Limb was developed at the O'Neill in '83, but he's returned on 10 occasions as an actor. Now he's back as a scribe with his latest play, Frame 312--directed by Booth, the new artistic director of Atlanta's famed Alliance Theatre.

Change is Good
I asked Hatcher and Reddin how they view the various changes at the O'Neill. "In the past," Reddin says, "all the playwrights gathered for a couple of days at the beginning of the conference to read their plays aloud to each other--an excruciating, but enlightening experience. Under Jim, there's a new policy of breaking into smaller groups, with just a few of us reading to a few other playwrights. Only now each playwright also has to read the entire play to his or her own cast and director, so everyone can hear the story together. Not surprisingly, all of the playwrights I talked to didn't like this very much, but all of the actors did."

Rob Morrow and Alvin Epstein
in Tuesdays With Morrie
(Photo: A. Vincent Scarano)
Other innovations include three 'special projects' being worked on by their creators--David Cale, Patricia Smith, and Regina Taylor--in addition to the 15 plays. Previously, neither adaptations nor translations were allowed at the O'Neill; but this year, O'Neill dramaturg and Critics Institute teacher Michael Feingold is here in a new role with his English version of Jean Giraudoux's Sodom and Gomorrah. And Hatcher was invited to bring his stage adaptation of the bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie (a made-for-TV movie based on the book won the late Jack Lemmon his final Emmy in 2000).

Says Hatcher, "It's always difficult to be the next generation. Lloyd built the house, and now Jim needs to make certain adjustments to live in it. For one thing, it seems screamingly obvious that playwrights shouldn't have had to haul themselves back and forth as we used to. We're so much less harried staying right here at The White House." Of the late, unlamented critiques, he remarks, "Lloyd was militant in his belief that 'the playwright has spoken through his/her work,' and so we were never allowed to respond after the critiques." Hatcher also mentions that, for the first time, important stage directions are being read (by a disembodied voice over a loudspeaker) during the O'Neill presentations--a real help, given the minimal staging. "Another important practical change for me," he continues, "is that playwrights can now pick their own directors and participate in the casting process. I adored all the actors who used to be here, but that rep thing can break down when certain specific types are needed." (Along with Epstein, Rob Morrow and Dana Reeve round out Hatcher's own three-person cast.)

Hatcher and Feingold shared the services of Esbjornson, the only director to work on more than one play. "Jim [Houghton] and Michael both picked me to direct Sodom and Gomorrah, which was the season opener," Esbjornson says. "I'd already worked with Michael on the script about a year ago for a reading at New York Theatre Workshop. Then Jim asked if I could also come back to work on Morrie, to see how much we could move it beyond the book. I find the O'Neill to be a safe place for playwrights to experiment. Too often, in the theater's feeding frenzy for new plays, they are pushed into full productions before they're ready."

Actor/playwright Dan O'Brien's play Moving Picture parallels the dissolution of the real-life relationship between Thomas Alva Edison and his protégé, William Dickson, with the birth of the movies. After reading his full length play to a spellbound cast including O'Neill acting vet Kevin Geer (Side Man), who play's Edison, director Freedman jokes, "And so ends the first week"--another allusion to the four days of rehearsal at the O'Neill versus four weeks of rehearsal in the outside world. O'Brien, Freedman, and the actors then begin to discuss the characters, the rhythms, the silences of the piece. In short order, the nine-character play will be lurching to its feet under the watchful eyes of playwright and director.

"Gerry and I talked by phone for about a month before we got here," O'Brien relates. "It's so nice to be in a place that really respects the playwright So many people say, "It's all about the playwright,' and then they throw the work in front of an audience too soon. I've been writing for about five years, and it's happening slowly for me. To be here with other writers of all ages--some even younger than me--at all stages of their careers is so great. With this kind of attention and support, I can only hope it'll become a better script."

Veterans and Newbies
Geer, who appears in two plays this season, says that he's been coming to the O'Neill "since I was a young buck, back in '82. I actually resisted the idea of change until I realized that they had the purest of intentions--kind of shaking the cobwebs out. Routines may have been loosened, but they've kept the focus on the playwright. And I love the conferences. I mean, this isn't a theater festival: It's a theater conference."

One of the youngest actors on campus this summer is Carlo Alban (References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot). He plays the son in Karen Hartman's Going Gone, directed by Yionoulis, who also runs the Acting Company at Yale. Alban came to the O'Neill during Houghton's first year. "I had done a reading of Going Gone at the McCarter last year," he says, "so they brought me along. This is an amazing atmosphere, very focused. You meet so many people--I love the name tags--and I'm learning a lot about the business. I think it's great that Jim wants to rotate to give lots of actors a chance to come up." Albert Macklin (June Moon), who's also in O'Brien's play, agrees. "I did a play here earlier this season," he tells me, "and I told Jim I'd do anything at all to come back. They called me right after I'd returned to New York."

The O'Neill seems remarkably kid-friendly this summer; besides Houghton's two children, Diamond's daughter attends her mom's rehearsal and Yionoulis' six-year-old accompanies her to Going Gone's final outdoor performance in the Edith (named for Edith Oliver, longtime Off-Broadway critic for The New Yorker and a past O'Neill dramaturg). "I find being here both challenging and rewarding," Yionoulis confides, "and not just because of the weather." She's referring to her July 4th tech rehearsal, which was almost rained out. "We'd only gotten to do about one and a half light cues before a dozen interns had to unplug everything and move it inside to finish. But the show went on the next night as scheduled."

Garces, who also came up last year for the first time, says: "It's easier to use the same people over and over, of course, but what Jim is doing takes a lot more effort and requires incredible integrity." Though Smashing, the

This year's crop of O'Neill Center playwrights
(Photo: A. Vincent Scarano)
play by Brooke Berman that Garces is directing, goes up on July 20 and 21, he's already been in residence for a week or so as an observer visiting other rehearsals. "I really believe in the process," he says. "We take a valuable journey in only four days [of rehearsal]; it forces you to hone in on what's crucial. I've worked a lot with living playwrights in the room, but this is intense."

"Our program hasn't changed that much," muses OCI director Sullivan, "we pretty much do what we always did and play off the conference, but the all-conference meetings are a nice way for us all to come together. And the O'Neill's attitude toward us is more inclusive. When Albee came, he also talked with the critics." In a recent article, Sullivan alluded to Eugene O'Neill's own feelings about critics in general. "Most of them he considered boneheads, but he developed a real friendship with George Jean Nathan. I think of their friendship when I see an O'Neill critic huddling with an O'Neill playwright at the pub."

The other (unpaid) half of George White's job, that of O'Neill CEO, now belongs to producer Tom Viertel--the final component of the new triumvirate here. "This infusion of fresh blood marks a reawakening of the spirit of the O'Neill," Viertel enthuses. "It's simply fantastic. I'm not involved in the play selection at all, I'm just the fundraising guy, but Howard [Sherman] and I are also very keen to extend the educational aspect of the O'Neill. We often come across projects that can't come up here during the summer, so we're taking steps towards seeing more year-round activity on our theatrical campus. I'm dedicated to continuing our various programs; the Cabaret Symposium is handled by Ellie Ellsworth and will probably be scaled back somewhat this year, but Puppetry is on a pretty fine footing."

As I take my leave of the O'Neill on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, Neil Pepe and playwright Adam Rapp are hitting balls to each other in the critic's corner while some of the interns play Frisbee on the other side of the mansion. It may be a theater conference but, hey, it's still summer.

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