The O’Neill Theater Center plays a key role on the American stage.
Vincent A. Scarrano
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Talk to anyone involved with Waterford’s Eugene O’ Neill Theater Center, and the word they’ll most often use to describe it is “magic.” Likewise, anyone who visits the 10-acre campus it occupies within Walnut Grove—encompassing the historic Hammond estate overlooking Long Island Sound—calls this a “magical” place. And the center’s operating slogan for the 2009 summer season was, no surprise, “Magic Happens Here.”
On the surface, maybe that sounds facile, or worse, grandiose. Thing is, it’s also fitting. It’s not really a stretch to say that if Waterford native George C. White hadn’t founded The O’Neill’s first theater development program here in 1964—the National Playwrights Conference (NPC)—our nation’s whole artistic culture might be, well, a lot poorer for it.
We might not have the Sundance Film Festival, modeled after the NPC by Robert Redford. Some of our greatest playwrights and their works might never have seen the light of day: August Wilson (Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, etc.), Wendy Wasserstein (Uncommon Women and Others), Adam Rapp (Trueblinka) and John Pielmeier (Agnes of God), not to mention Christopher Durang, Lee Blessing and John Patrick Shanley—all nurtured under the legendary hand of the late artistic director Lloyd Richards. Moreover, if actors Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Aaron Eckhart hadn’t passed through, they might not be as familiar to us as they are today.
When The O’Neill first hung out its shingle, the concept of “play development”—or creating a sanctuary/boot camp where writers, directors, actors, production designers and audiences (who experience the plays as staged readings) all assembled with the sole purpose of helping playwrights nurture new works—was unheard of. Since that time, countless imitators and other models have emerged all over the country, and The O’Neill itself has greatly diversified, adding the National Theater Institute (in 1970), the National Critics Institute (1975), the National Music Theater Conference (1978), the National Puppetry Conference (1990) and the Cabaret & Performance Conference (which came and went, then returned for good in 2005). The importance of its role on the national stage has not been overlooked by the Tony Awards, which just named The O’Neill Best Regional Theater for 2010 (to be presented June 13), an award it also won in 1979.
In the last 10 years, it’s also suffered many of the slings and arrows theaters are heir to: financial woes, staff instability and a certain amount of scattershot developmental thinking. But at heart its model is hardy, and as its new Tony signifies, The O’Neill is currently in the midst of a renaissance. Its 46th season, which opens on June 12 with the puppetry conference and closes on Aug. 14 with the cabaret’s grand finale, features seven plays, three musicals and cabaret performances by Leslie Uggams, Penny Fuller and Brent Barrett, all for a very affordable price. Now seems like a good time to take an updated look at a few of the center’s core programs.
When Wendy C. Goldberg—only the fourth artistic director in the history of the National Playwrights Conference—came aboard in 2005, she had to deal with the hangover left by some uncertain summers of discontent following Lloyd Richards’ departure in 1999. Armed with an M.F.A. in directing from UCLA, she had previously spent six seasons at the highly esteemed Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where she ran the new play development program and ultimately became associate artistic director.
Her first goal was to update the National Playwrights Conference model—in light of the growth of competing theater development programs—without “fixing” what wasn’t broken. One initiative was to rethink what had been its one-size-fits-all approach to “workshopping,” and start to meet new plays’ divergent needs. “In each case, I work with the playwrights, directors and dramaturges to determine what’s going to be the best use of their time,” says Goldberg. “For some, it’s to sit around a table reworking the script for four days; for others the playwright wants to see things more physicalized—which is fine as long as you don’t spend too much time on sound and light cues and not enough on writing.”