How a seaside spark led to O'Neill's happy ending

O'Neill founder George C. White, standing in front of the Barn, in 1965.
O'Neill founder George C. White, standing in front of the Barn, in 1965.

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center observes its 50th anniversary this year and is marking the occasion with, among other celebratory events, the release of a book about the renowned venue.

"The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater," published by Yale University Press, is being released on May 27. (List price is $60.) It's written by playwright and theater historian Jeffrey Sweet, who conducted more than 100 interviews on the subject between September 2012 and September 2013.

Sweet had the advantage of visiting the O'Neill at various times over the years, dating back to 1970, when he attended the National Critics Institute.

"I saw what I gather was one of Meryl Streep's first performances at the O'Neill, in a children's play," he says. "I saw the first performance of 'Fences.' I saw 'A History of the American Film.' I was at Lloyd's memorial (referring to Playwrights Conference Artistic Director Lloyd Richards). I helped scatter (actor) John Seitz's ashes. I just had the good luck to be there on days that had to be included."

Sweet, who had written the book "Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players," approached O'Neill Executive Director Preston Whiteway about whether the O'Neill would cooperate with him on a book. Whiteway responded that it was funny Sweet should ask, because the center had a deal to do such a book with Yale University Press.

"I thought, 'Geez, I don't know if I want to write a sponsored book,'" Sweet recalls. "I was pretty clear that if they were interested in me doing it, it wasn't going to come off as a promotional piece."

Sweet details how the O'Neill began. Waterford native George C. White was on a sailboat when his father pointed out a piece of waterfront property that had been given to the town of Waterford. The municipality, though, was mostly interested in the beach, and White began percolating ideas for the other part of the land. Some notions didn't pan out - making it a summer adjunct for the Yale School of Drama, for instance - but it ultimately jelled as a place focused on developing new works and new voices for the theater.

In his preface, Sweet writes, "My intention is to tell how one young man's enthusiasm - sparked by an observation by his father one afternoon in a sailboat - changed the course of the American stage."

The O'Neill's process arose at a time when the way Broadway productions were developed - on the road, in pre-Broadway try-outs - were disappearing because of the cost, Sweet says.

"There had to be some other way of whipping the material into shape," he says.

The O'Neill, along with off-Broadway, provided that.

Ultimately, Sweet says, "The O'Neill became a big, constant thing. It changed the magnetic field."

Many theater people went to the O'Neill, realized its methods worked, and used them when they started other play development programs, Sweet notes.

The O'Neill's playwrights conference has seen some of the most respected and influential dramatists in the world come through. Among them: Wendy Wasserstein, John Patrick Shanley and Christopher Durang.

"Out of all the amazing artists who have gotten launched and done significant work at the O'Neill, I don't think there would be very many people who would argue August Wilson being the most significant in terms of his impact on the American theater," Sweet says.

He writes about Wilson's work at the O'Neill and his process, including his need to see everything on stage before he knew what to cut. This resulted in long first-night performances, with the first act for "Seven Guitars," for instance, running two hours.

Sweet also delves into the schism that developed between the playwright and Lloyd Richards, who had, until the break, directed all of his works.

"Nobody had ever made clear to me the story of the relationship between August and Lloyd and what happened," Sweet says.

Both men have since died, but Sweet talked to those who were close to them. Richards' son, Scott, says that Richards had to have an operation for a blockage in his carotid artery before "Seven Guitars" rehearsals started. Scott Richards says Wilson seemed more frightened even than family members. He believes that's when Wilson started thinking of working with other directors, to avoid feeling that vulnerable again.

Sweet quotes Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero, meanwhile, as saying: " ... every person who starts under the auspices of somebody, when you gain your wings, you have to try out how you're going to be going on your own. August felt he needed to experience the work more on his own."

Sweet uses a lot of individual, personal stories to illuminate O'Neill programs. He quotes John Krasinski, the actor from "The Office" who studied at the O'Neill's National Theater Institute when he was in college, telling a story he says he's never told before. When then-NTI head David Jaffe was meeting with individual students, he called Krasinski out on his tendency to break serious moments.

Krasinski told Sweet that Jaffe said, "I watch you do a monologue or a scene and you're going into some really interesting, really dangerous places ... as soon as you get nervous and you might have put yourself out there a little too much, you turn to the audience and make a joke or make a face and you bring the audience back in and everyone laughs at you. ... I'm telling you right now that is extremely detrimental to your work."

Spurred by that, Krasinski had a breakthrough performance in a piece at the O'Neill.

The book explores O'Neill conferences, too, from puppetry to music theater; for instance, Robert Lopez, who just won an Oscar for co-writing the song "Let It Go" for the film "Frozen," reminisces about working on the musical "Avenue Q."

In writing about the cabaret conference, Sweet used the story of actress Laila Robins, who had been playing a grueling role of a woman dying from cancer in Edward Albee's "The Lady from Dubuque."

Robins went to the O'Neill's cabaret conference, and it served as a kind of therapy. Sweet says that told him "something about what I want to say about what cabaret does - a sort of intimate, restorative, joy-filled medium that cabaret is. So that was a way in."

Sweet believes that the O'Neill's greatest legacy is the number of writers who got their first break there.

He says that, with the academization of the arts, it's become increasingly difficult to enter the profession without getting an MFA - and an MFA is not cheap.

"One of the things I like about the O'Neill very much is there's still a shot for the writer who hasn't gone through one of the prestigious playwrights programs to be discovered and to be seen and to have a shot at a career," he says.


The New York Library for the Performing Arts is hosting the exhibition "Launchpad of the American Theater: The O'Neill since 1964" through Sept. 16. It features drawings, interviews, videos, photographs, original scripts, recordings, and other artifacts. It is curated by G. W. Mercier, a long-time O'Neill collaborator and Tony-nominated set, costume, and puppet designer. The library is located at 111 Amsterdam Ave.

Meryl Streep with Joel Brooks in 'Marco Polo' at the O'Neill in 1975.
Meryl Streep with Joel Brooks in 'Marco Polo' at the O'Neill in 1975.
August Wilson, near the Rose Theater Barn at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
August Wilson, near the Rose Theater Barn at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ 1983, with Howard Rollins Jr. as Gabriel.
August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ 1983, with Howard Rollins Jr. as Gabriel.


Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, who both acted at the O'Neill when they were just beginning their careers, wrote forwards for "The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater."

Streep reminisces about playing Isadora Duncan in a play titled "Isadora Duncan Sleeps with the Russian Navy." She used a long scarf as a prop - and memorized her entire script for the staged readings when she realized she couldn't handle both the script and the scarf at the same time. She writes, " ... I thought: anybody can MEMORIZE, what a dull achievement! (This was something I was able to do in those days fairly quickly BECAUSE I WAS YOUNG. Those days are gone.)"

She says that, with the fast-moving National Playwrights Conference process, she learned "a sort of invaluable swiftness of decision making, out of necessity."

Douglas recalls of his time at the center - first as an intern and then as a young actor - "I would not be who or where I am today without the O'Neill. It is a magical place, one of the most important influences on my life and career, and why I've served on the O'Neill's Board of Trustees since 1980."


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