Conference wanderings: 49th O’Neill National Playwrights Conference
Saturday July 27 through Monday July 29, 2013
Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford, CT
Over the past six months or so, I’ve been assisting pal Jeff Sweet on a book commemorating the 50 year history of the O’Neill Playwrights Conference and associated other events that transpire of a summer in Waterford, Connecticut. “Founded in 1964,” so the 49th Summer Season brochure tells us, “the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center develops new work and new artists of the American stage, and few organizations have had greater impact on the theater. Just as Eugene O’Neill brought American drama into the modern age, the O’Neill continues to create innovative new models in American theater, pioneering play development and shaping the theatrical canon. Alumni have gone on to win every major award in the theater arts,” this enthused prose continues, “including the Pulitzer Price, the Tony, the Oscar, the Emmy, the Obie, the Susan Smith Blackburn Price and the Steinberg/ATCA Citation Award. The O’Neill itself is the recipient of two Tony Awards: in 2010 for Regional Theater, and in 1979 for Theatrical Excellence.”
Well golly. After transcribing many interviews with alumni for the Yale University Press history (scheduled for publication in 2014, the 50th anniversary year of the Center), I’ve been yearning to visit the grounds myself. What about this “conference tree” and the sloping lawn and the Mansion and the dining hall? What of the open air theatre space that was once called the Instant Theater and has been renamed the Edith, after Edith Oliver the early stalwart of the Conference (and co-founder of the ATCA that was birthed on these grounds)? Where is the Barn and where is the beach and where do the cabaret performers perform when they arrive? Are the local college dorm room accommodations for some visitors as modest as the alumni remembered in the scores of interview hours to which I’ve listened? I can say that the place is as lovely and also as modest as folks have suggested. As a warmly welcomed visitor, invited as a kind of reward for work contributed to the book project yet without a working focus during my time on campus, I learned in concrete terms that this is above all a place to work hard and create. The O’Neill is public (the selected performances) and private (the classes and seminars and rehearsals and creative processes) and an education venue for students during the school year and visiting scholars and theatre makers and critics in the summer. You can visit happily for a performance (a play reading or a cabaret performance or a talk) and peer in from the outside. And the best way to visit, the way to truly belong, is to be part of creating the work. To wander as a visitor is pleasant but at a distance. This is not a museum but a working place.
On your way onto the grounds by car or walking (as I did from my dorm room in nearby New London) you are greeted with the logo, the organizational blue, the cartoon of Mr. O’Neill himself, and the announcement of upcoming events. From the first moments, you have a sense of a campus and performance venue and mysteries around the edges.
Performance Venue 1. Walking up the drive, past the little ticket box office, just before reaching the Mansion, to your right you’ll see seats in a clearing. Born as the “Instant Theater” then renamed the “Edith” after long-term denizen, dramaturg, and critic Edith Oliver. Bleachers under a huge sheltering tree, lights hung once per summer and performers and technicians are then instructed to keep to the playing surfaces. A place the invites creation amid the leaves and bugs and distant sounds of wind and surf.
The Mansion. Just a few steps beyond the Edith, O’Neill himself greets you in the hallway of the Hammond Mansion that houses administrative and literary offices, meeting spaces, a library, the dining area, and some sleeping rooms. The summer camp feel that permeates the place, regardless of some of the fancy trappings, is constant. Informal attire, more relaxed rhythms, friendly faces at every turn, and name tags constantly visible. The Company Management area (or “CoMa” as you learn to refer to it) is back around a corner, through the hall housing the scores of annual plaques marking each year’s group of playwrights, past the kitchen. Here you pick up your rooming assignment, your badge, your instructions, your paperwork. You know at a glance who is who by the name badges worn around necks — you are marked as a member of the tribe.
Performance Venue 2. I catch the final performance of the final play reading of the 2013 Playwrights Conference on Saturday July 27th, and instantly wish I had been here all summer long. David Auburn‘s new play explores two characters who meet as strangers when one rents a lakeside home from the other as a vacation venue. Preston Whiteway, O’Neill Executive Director, and Wendy C. Goldberg, National Playwrights Conference Artistic Director, provide resonant and slightly emotional introductions to the piece. And as is true with all things that happen here, the night is given over to the play that we the audience and the actors on stage are there to serve.
Performance Venue 3. The Cabaret & Performance Conference, under the artistic direction of John McDaniel, rounds out the summer activities. The performances are scheduled to occur in the Dina Merrill Theater that is a fully air-conditioned black box connected to the Theater Barn. The day I wander through the venue, techies are playing with platforms and lights that will serve as the framing elements for the singers and musicians who will take over this space for the ensuing several weeks.
So here at the O’Neill locations frame creativity; programming serves playwrights and artists; nature at the edges keeps things low-key. The best rooms and efforts of the enterprise serve the playwrights and creators resident here for months or weeks or days, and the rest of us are happily along for the ride. This was my first of what I hope to be many visits to the O’Neill grounds. Perhaps to return as a historian or a dramaturg or a critic or again as an observer, this place is resonant and redolent with history and charm and drama and adventures, about which I have been learning and to which I hope to contribute, in ways yet to be determined.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 30, 2013)