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Preston Whiteway leaving O'Neill Center after 16 years

Preston Whiteway, who has led the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford since 2007, will leave the center this summer.

Whiteway, now 38, started at the O’Neill when he was fresh out of college, and he is leaving to go work in the movie and TV world in New York City. He recently joined Tribeca Productions as a creative development consultant. Tribeca’s productions have included the Oscar-nominated “The Irishman.”

Tribeca has a large deal with Netflix, and Whiteway said he will “be helping to bring in projects and writers and creative types of all stripes from the theater world to create content for Tribeca — through the Tribeca banner but ultimately for Netflix.”

Whiteway will remain at the O’Neill until August, so he will be on hand during the busy summer months of puppetry, playwrights, musical theater and cabaret conferences.

As excited he is about his Tribeca job, Whiteway said, “It’s very difficult to leave (the O’Neill). I have such mixed emotions, on this day today as we announce (my departure) and as I considered this over the past few months. ... The O’Neill is such a special place. It’s so magical and deeply embedded in my DNA.”

Whiteway was hired as the O’Neill’s general manager in 2004 just after earning his bachelor’s degree from Duke University in economics. That time period was financially precarious for the O’Neill. He was promoted to executive director in 2007.

Discussing why he is leaving now, Whiteway said, “The O’Neill, when I arrived, took a chance on a young man because, in some ways, they didn’t have the money to pay for someone with a long résumé. We have moved over these last 16 years, and working with an amazing group of staff and trustees, we have transformed the place into a healthy organization with new buildings, launching new programs that further our mission. So, I thought this was a healthy moment to consider a transition.”

During Whiteway’s time leading the organization, the O’Neill underwent its largest expansion ever in 2014, with the construction of nine new buildings.

That same year, a new musical theater training component was added to the center’s National Theater Institute for college-aged students.

The O’Neill nearly tripled its budget while Whiteway has been there, the center noted in a news release, with “especially strong earned revenue growth in his time.”

The O’Neill received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony in 2016. It also earned the Tony Award for outstanding regional theatre in 2010.

Whiteway, whose title was changed to CEO/producer this past December, oversees six artistic directors and a dozen programs at the center.

The O’Neill will honor Whiteway with its Monte Cristo Award on April 19 in New York City. The award is given annually to a person who has had an extraordinary impact on American theater.

Tom Viertel, who is chairman of the O’Neill board of trustees, couldn’t be reached to comment Wednesday but said in a statement from the O’Neill, “The impact that Preston Whiteway has had on the O'Neill over the last 16 years is immeasurable. He leaves behind a strong organization both artistically and financially. The American theater is stronger as a result of his dedication, creativity, and fortitude. We are proud to have launched his career and it is with sincere admiration for his many achievements that we celebrate him with the 20th annual Monte Cristo Award this spring.”

Ruth Hendel, who is vice chair of the O’Neill board of trustees, had nothing but praise for Whiteway when contacted by phone Wednesday. “He’s just an exceedingly capable person ... Everyone is grateful for his dedication to the O’Neill and all the hard work he put in and all the fantastic results he was able to make happen,” she said, echoing Viertel’s comments that Whiteway is leaving the O’Neill in great shape financially and artistically.

She added, “We will miss him dearly. He’s an exceptional human being.”

The O’Neill will conduct a search to find Whiteway’s replacement.

Asked what stands out in his mind, looking back over his time at the O’Neill, Whiteway said it’s hard to play favorites but did offer up a few memories.

Expanding the campus was significant not just for the construction process itself, he said, but for how, through that process, “the community of Waterford embraced us in a way that had never happened before. So I think that is something I will treasure always, that this place which perhaps folks didn’t know very well or hadn’t been to — suddenly we were a more visible and vital presence within the town and the southeastern Connecticut community.”

He mentioned other memorable moments, too, including something from early in his time at the O’Neill: the “magical salsa parties” that the cast and creative team of “In the Heights” held after performances.

And he fondly recalls watching students “with us realize that theater or entertainment could be so much more than just a career as a performer. They could be a writer, they could be a director, they could be a designer, they could be all those things and more, together, a producer. (It’s been gratifying) watching that transformation for our students, and then the lifelong careers that happened and the impact on American culture, all from that aha moment that happens with us.”

As he discussed leaving the O’Neill, Whiteway said, “It’s hard to imagine my life not being in Waterford, here at the O’Neill, with these colleagues here, my staff, who I consider deep personal friends, as well. But I am looking forward to what the future holds.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

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