Ten years later, Whiteway is at center stage

Preston Whiteway, executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, stands at the center of the Edith Oliver Theater on the O'Neill campus on June 11.
Preston Whiteway, executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, stands at the center of the Edith Oliver Theater on the O'Neill campus on June 11. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

O'Neill executive director ready for big anniversary year

This is a milestone year for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. It's celebrating its 50th year, with an impressive summer line-up and a grand gala celebrating the anniversary.

And it's in the midst of its biggest expansion ever - a construction project that will allow for the establishment of a music theater undergraduate program.

But 2014 also marks a different anniversary for the O'Neill's current leader. Executive Director Preston Whiteway began at the Waterford center 10 years ago. He was all of 22 then, straight out of Duke University. He was hired as general manager, the second in command to then-executive director Amy Sullivan.

It was, he recalls, like "being shot out of a cannon."

Whiteway arrived June 7, and the following week, the puppetry conference began. All of the leaders at the time were new to the O'Neill, and it was their first summer at the theater development Mecca.

"We were flying by the seat of our pants and putting out fires - dozens of them - on a daily basis," he says.

That, for instance, was the first year the O'Neill ran the playwrights and music theater conferences simultaneously, and they learned the center can't have all the projects on site at once. There were 10 plays and four musicals and not enough rehearsal space.

"People were rehearsing out on the grass, on the lawn, which is great, but then what happens when it rains?" Whiteway says.

Beside that summer's fair share of logistical nightmares, Whiteway remembers the artistic successes and the projects that went "on to great things."

Looking back over the past decade, Whiteway - who became executive director in 2007 - reminisces about a variety of highlights, from the first reading of the musical "In the Heights" at the O'Neill's 2005 National Music Theater Conference, which he says was "magical," to what happened when the O'Neill was honored with a Tony award in 2010.

Whiteway remembers "the cheer that went up at Radio City Music Hall when the O'Neill's name was announced for winning the regional theater Tony award. That was incredibly humbling and a real check-in moment for me about how much this place has changed lives in the theater community. It was one of the loudest cheers of the night. There's such love for the O'Neill in the theater community."

Another high point has been a long time coming. It's the building project - discussed for nearly a decade - that will allow for the creation of a National Music Theater Institute, a one-semester program for undergraduates. NMTI is the musical equivalent of the center's hugely successful National Theater Institute, which focuses on drama and accommodates 30 students each semester.

The construction features seven new dormitory cottages, creating living spaces for 65 students, artists and faculty, a laundry building, a new rehearsal hall and the renovation of existing buildings into additional rehearsal space. A $3 million state grant is going toward the total cost, which is approximately $8 million.

Whiteway spoke about all the various aspects of founding the NMTI, which, like NTI, will be led by Rachel Jett. For the first time, the O'Neill will recruit internationally for students. One of America's great exports is musical theater. Various countries around the world love the American musical, and more new musicals are now launched in South Korea than in New York, Whiteway says.

An advantage in terms of staffing NTI and NMTI, he notes, is that the O'Neill can look at "who has two weeks off between professional engagements but is a top Broadway director and wants to come in and work with these students. That is what our calling card is and will continue to be. A student in South Korea can't get that (or) a student in South Africa, a student in Brazil - that's another hot market."

Before NMTI begins, though, the O'Neill has a bustling summer. The center will celebrate its 50th year at the aforementioned July 11 gala. On the previous weekend, it will host a homecoming for all its alumni, on July 5 and 6.

And, of course, it will have its usual jam-packed summer of conferences. The National Playwrights Conference will feature six new plays, and the National Music Theater Conference will develop two musicals.

The Cabaret and Performance Conference's performances will include one by Broadway icon Betty Buckley and a night of Sondheim, with original cast members of Stephen Sondheim shows reinterpreting his numbers.

First, though, the puppets are here, with performances scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

As part of the 50th festivities, too, the O'Neill saw the publication of a book about its history, "The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater" by Jeffrey Sweet. An exhibit about the same topic, "Launchpad of the American Theater: The O'Neill since 1964," is on view through Sept. 16 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. The hope is to bring the exhibit to this area as well.

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It's been quite a transformation since Whiteway's early time at the O'Neill.

"Those first three, four years was real hand-to-mouth for the organization. I think I earned some of this gray hair, trying to figure out how we'd meet payroll the following week and things like that," he says.

"It was really tough. There had been such turnover in leadership, I think our funders were unsure of our health, our stability, our direction."

When Amy Sullivan became executive director, she brought great fundraising prowess and helped put in place a plan that started to pay dividends, Whiteway says. But Sullivan was diagnosed with cancer and eventually realized she wouldn't be able to continue running the O'Neill. Sullivan, who died in 2007, recommended Whiteway to the board as the new director.

"She was a force of nature. I learned so much from her. ... I had run the Broadway at Duke program, bringing in national tours," says Whiteway, who grew up in Virginia Beach. "So I had familiarity with subscription campaigns and marketing and running a budget. I certainly had good intentions, but I was green, and she helped me a lot."

Whiteway, who was just 25 when he became director, says O'Neill founder George C. White was also wonderfully supportive. White used to point out that he was only 27 when he established the center.

"He was always a huge supporter and believer than the organization could thrive - and the O'Neill does thrive - on youth," Whiteway says. It thrives "on new plays, discovering new writers, training 20-year-old undergrads just starting their career. So in the same way, they took a chance on me."

When he was hired, Whiteway anticipated he might be at the O'Neill for a few years. Now, he's happy he's still here after a decade.

"The job has grown, and the O'Neill has grown. No day and no year is like the one before, which is the reason I stayed - being able to wear all the many different hats here," he says.

The O'Neill, he notes, has so many different aspects to it. It is a school and a professional theater. It has a museum, the Monte Cristo Cottage. It boasts a significant presence in New York in addition to its strong one in Connecticut. It has programs in Moscow and Los Angeles.

"I don't know if I'm going be on the George C. White 31-year plan. But I love it here," Whiteway says. "The nature of the O'Neill is to constantly evolve, and that is something that is very professionally fulfilling."

 

At the O'Neill

Performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford this summer include:

National Puppetry Conference

Performances 7 p.m. June 20 and 21

National Playwrights Conference

"Tiger Style!" by Mike Lew: 8:15 p.m. July 2 and 3

"I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard" by Halley Feiffer: 7:15 p.m. July 4, 8:15 p.m. July 5

"Ugly Lies the Bone" by Lindsey Ferrentino: 8:15 p.m. July 9 and 10

"The Imaginary Music Critic Who Doesn't Exist" by David Mitchell Robinson: 8;15 p.m. July 12, 7:15 p.m. July 13

"A Power Play: Or, What's-Its-Name" by A. Rey Pamatmat: 8:15 p.m. July 16 and 17

"Bright Half Life" by Tanya Barfield: 7:15 p.m. July 18, 8:15 p.m. July 19

National Music Theater Conference

"The War Dept." by Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer: 8 p.m. July 28 and July 2, 3 p.m. June 29, 7 p.m. July 4

"The White City" by Julia Gytri and Avi Amon: 8 p.m. July 5 and 9, 3 p.m. July 6 and 11

Cabaret & Performance Conference

Opening ceremonies, 8 p.m. July 23

Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch, 8 p.m. July 24

Mimi Hines, 8 p.m. July 25

Susie Mosher and the New Faces of 2014, 8 p.m. July 26

The Man in the Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr sings Bob Dylan, 8 p.m. July 27

The Sondheim Projrect, 8 p.m. July 29

Cabaret Junior Fellows, 8 p.m. July 30 and 31

Betty Buckley, 7 p.m. August 1

Grand Finale, 8 p.m. Aug. 2

Tickets are $28 for puppetry, music theater and playwrights shows. They are $35 for cabaret and $50 for Betty Buckley and the cabaret grand finale. Call (860) 443-1238.

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