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Waterford - The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center looked to its past and future - and showcased performances from its storied history - as the theater development mecca celebrated its 50th anniversary at a Friday gala.
O'Neill Executive Director Preston Whiteway said, "This is a special moment in time for the O'Neill. Our 50th anniversary. But it's also a very special moment in all of American theater. The O'Neill's founding in 1964 marked a profound shift in the way plays are born, the way theater is made in this country. And it all began, and is thanks to, Waterford, Connecticut, and a man sailing by this beach 50 years ago (referring to O'Neill founder George C. White)."
The O'Neill, Whiteway said, created a new model in the theater world and "revolutionized the American theater and the way a play was prepared for full production." Here, writers could work on their plays with esteemed professionals; they would explore, ask questions and see staged readings in front of audiences. And the O'Neill mission has remained the same over the years: "To discover, nurture, and support new work and new artists in the bold tradition of America's greatest dramatist, Eugene O'Neill."
Entertainment at the gala, naturally, showcased work from each of the center's vaunted conferences. Sam Wilmott, a former composer-in-residence at the National Music Theater Conference, sang a number from a musical he's writing about the life and work of Roald Dahl. Tyler Bunch and James Godwin, both of whom have been part of the National Puppetry Conference, did some puppet improvisation.
While the gala was still running at deadline, it was scheduled to include a scene from "Moon for the Misbegotten" performed by Reed Birney - who was nominated for a Tony this year for his performance in "Casa Valentina" on Broadway and who has acted at the O'Neill often over the years - and Sally Wingert. That was a nod to the inaugural National Playwright Conference in 1965, which ended with director Jose Quintero, a renowned interpreter of O'Neill's plays, staging a sequence from "Moon for the Misbegotten."
Beyond the performances, the O'Neill's current expansion was a happy topic for the center's leaders. Board Chairman Tom Viertel told the crowd about the construction project that's in full swing.
Being built on campus: seven new dormitory cottages, creating living spaces for 65 students, artists and faculty; a laundry building; and a new rehearsal hall. In addition, existing buildings will be renovated to create more rehearsal space.
The expanded dorm space will allow for the O'Neill to create a new program it has wanted to establish for a while: a musical theater version of its National Theater Institute for college students. The National Music Theater Institute will be a one-semester program for undergraduates.
One of the new cottages, too, will be used for artist residencies during the winter.
Viertel said that the O'Neill will be able to lead the American theater in the next 50 years as it has done for the last 50 and that the center is "on the cusp of an incredibly exciting time."
Kerry O'Malley, who was a fellow at the O'Neill's Cabaret and Performance last year, sang at the gala and said of the O'Neill - echoing comments by others - "This place is special."
She added, "It feels like you're home. When you come back, that's how you're greeted."