The O’Neill Theater Center plays a key role on the American stage.
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Each show’s intensive development process spans two weeks, during which there are four public presentations. These readings are critical elements of other O’Neill conferences as well, but in the NMTC they’ve often been game-changing. “Last year, we worked on a musical adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with book, music and lyrics all by one writer, Daniel Zaitchick,” Haupt says. “It was a very abstract story, hard to put together. We did a lot of work in the time before and after the first two presentations. But then, the day after we did the third reading, Daniel said, ‘There’s nothing more I can do here.’ I thought he was just blocked.” So it proved. Late in the day before the final reading, Zaitchick had a sudden inspiration and turned the play inside out. “The final reading was rough, but the script was vastly improved,” Haupt says.
Librettist Jeff Whitty is another enthusiastic veteran of the NMTC experience. He and his songwriting teams have workshopped two shows at The O’Neill, 2002’s “Sesame Street” takeoff Avenue Q and 2009’s Tales of the City (based on San Francisco author Armistead Maupin’s novels of the same name). Both shows, he says, arrived as “well-intentioned messes” at the beginning of the conference, but by the end “we found their hearts.” He adds, “Paulette’s great because she wants the well-intentioned mess. And the schedule, with the multiple presentations, encouraged us to take risks.” He found the audiences to be invaluable dramaturges.
“With anything in the theater, you only learn from the audience,” he says. “You’re sculpting in the dark, but putting your creation in front of people lets you turn on the lights for a minute and see what you have. In Avenue Q, the opening number was the hardest to get right; we ended up trying something different with each O’Neill audience. The best response we got was to the one that had just a shred of ‘It Sucks to Be Me,’ so that became the opening song.” Tales, with its epic story arc and large cast (13 actors played nearly 20 roles), benefitted even more. “Most musicals are like the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle, Tales is the Sunday—it’s just huge. In the readings, you could tell immediately where people got confused or bored. It really told us where to put our focus.”
Tales seems headed for the same success as Avenue Q (which began a six-year Broadway run just one year after its O’Neill residency); its world premiere will take place next spring at The American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco. “There’s nothing more terrifying than opening in Tales’ hometown,” says Whitty. In light of that, does he wish his NMTC readings were more fully staged? Not at all. When at The O’Neill, he says, “I had only two phone sessions with my shrink over the two weeks—and all I told him was, ‘I have nothing to say, because I’m so happy.’”
Chances are, that if you’ve been a casual follower of O’Neill history, you think of it as strictly a summer program. Wrong. One of its most important facets, the National Theater Institute (NTI)—an intensive, 14-week conservatory-style training program for college students from all over the country—takes over the Waterford campus during the fall and spring semesters. Participants attend classes daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (with a 7:30 a.m. warmup) in five core areas: acting, directing, playwriting, design and movement/voice. In addition, both groups get two weeks of training abroad, fall students in England and spring students in Russia.
The NTI has helped launch the careers of nearly 1,000 theater artists, including actors John Krasinski, Jennifer Garner, Jeremy Piven, Chris Elliott and Josh Radnor. With tuition at $19,500 per student, it has also contributed the lion’s share of income to The O’Neill’s $3 million annual operating budget (other funding comes largely from individual benefactors and sources like the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts). In recent years, the center has developed an equivalent six-week summer program, Theatermakers, which runs concurrently with both the National Playwrights Conference and National Music Theater Conference, and offers students the added advantage of forging professional relationships with visiting playwrights and creative teams. “So when they graduate from school, they have someone to call and say, ‘Remember me?’” says O’Neill Chairman of the Board Tom Viertel.
The Broadway producer behind The Producers (as well as recent revivals of Sweeney Todd, Company and A Little Night Music), Viertel would like to similarly enhance the O’Neill experience for the spring and fall NTI students by initiating year-round play-development conferences. One option, he thinks, would be to develop the plays the center is currently commissioning for an initiative called Stages. “We’re hiring well-known playwrights to write 45-minute to hour-long works specifically about and for teenagers,” he says. “It’s a complete lift from a program the National Theatre of England does. We’re trying to create a dramatic literature for high school kids—who are limited to staging shows like Romeo and Juliet and Grease—that’s never existed before.”
Of course, such a plan would cost serious money, but it’d be an important step on the road to creating what Viertel hopes will become a truly “integrated” O’Neill Theater Center. In its first 40 years, its programs operated almost entirely independently of one another: The NPC ended before the NMTC began. Now they overlap, which has created a richer, more collegial developmental environment but also more strain on existing resources. Happily, the town of Waterford has granted The O’Neill another acre of land—and Centerbrook Architects is designing a campus extension with additional theater, rehearsal and living spaces. With luck, this will pave the way for more initiatives, more revenue and even an endowment, says Viertel. In other words, more magic.