Published April 21. 2014 8:00PM Updated April 22. 2014 1:04PM
New York — When Meryl Streep acted at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford back in 1975, she was fresh out of Yale School of Drama. It was one of her first professional jobs post-Yale as an actor.
She recalls now how she worked on six plays over the course of five weeks. It was, she said, "a galvanizing place to begin a career."
Streep talked about her days at the O'Neill on Monday, when she received the center's Monte Cristo Award during a gala at the Edison Ballroom here.
The award is given to a theater artist who exemplifies playwright Eugene O'Neill's "pioneering spirit, unceasing artistic commitment, excellence, and accomplishment." Previously, honorees have included Kevin Spacey, Christopher Plummer and Wendy Wasserstein.
After hearing a raft of fellow artists praise her — and joke about her — Streep started off her acceptance speech by saying, "Well. I feel like I'm at the funeral. So I'm really happy. You don't usually get to be there."
She thanked O'Neill founder George White and "this amazing place you dreamed up."
She went on to say that she and the O'Neill are both like venerable old ladies who don't like to think of themselves as "a larded old institution — no matter how many tributes we've gotten, no matter how many successes we've launched. We like to think new work will come to us and our best work is head of us."
And places like the O'Neill that foster new work provide that opportunity, she said.
She thanked all the people at the gala for coming out to support the organization.
Among the guests in attendance were Michael Douglas, along with his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Douglas worked at the O'Neill back when he was starting his career, and he is a longtime supporter and board member.
Many other O'Neill alums were present, including Tony-winning actress Judith Light and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley.
Light, who acted in Wendy Wasserstein's "Uncommon Women and Others" at the O'Neill, said there is no one on Earth like Streep and there's no place like the O'Neill.
"At the O'Neill, on that beautiful beach in Connecticut ... we are one family. We are fulfilled as artists in ways that are deep and powerful and substantive," she said.
Shanley spoke at the gala, too, praising the O'Neill and saying how important it was for him — and how important it is for so many other writers.
"It changed my life," he said. "... It was much more important for me than winning the Academy Award."
He talked about working on the film "Doubt" with Streep. He says it was appropriate that she play a nun in that she lives a life of service and that what she was doing Monday night was service.
Playwright Tony Kushner spoke about working with Streep on the TV version of his "Angels in America." He said, too, that her winning the Monte Cristo Award means she now must play Mary Tyrone in O'Neill's "Long Days Journey Into Night."
Rounding out the group of playwrights who talked about Streep was Tracy Letts, who wrote "August: Osage County" and reflected on the hard work Streep puts into her performances.
During the presentation at the gala, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who just won an Oscar for "Let It Go" from "Frozen," performed a new song they wrote for the occasion: "We Want To Be Meryl Streep." (Lopez's "Avenue Q" was developed at the O'Neill.)
Actor Joe Grifasi, who is a good friend of Streep's, presented her with the Monte Cristo Award. Grifasi was at the O'Neill at the same time as Streep and has returned often in the years since.