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At the O’Neill Center, the Process Is the Thing

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the velvety darkness of an old wood-beamed barn, actors Chris Noth and Mark Blum sit on a small, dimly lighted stage and rehearse their lines.

“Try to keep this next section clean--don’t slur too much,” cautions director Harris Yulin as veteran playwright Romulus Linney stretches out on a nearby bench and listens. The play is called “Klonsky and Schwartz,” Linney’s take on the argumentative relationship between poets Milton Klonsky and Delmore Schwartz.

Outside, underneath a mammoth copper beech tree, a similar exploration is taking place. The play is called “The Bebop Heard in Okinawa,” the author a 23-year-old newcomer from Naperville, Ill., named Mat Smart. Half a dozen actors huddle around Smart and director Steven Williford as they rehearse the young writer’s turbulent tale of a racially mixed family in present-day Okinawa.

Nearly five decades--and a lot of theater experience--separate the 71-year-old Linney and Smart, but they are here at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center for the same reason: Both have written new plays.

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Each is taking part in the center’s annual Playwrights Conference, one of six major theater-related programs run on the grounds of the old Hammond Mansion, a rambling yellow-frame structure that overlooks Long Island Sound.

“We are where things begin,” says executive director Howard Sherman, who is in charge of the entire operation. “We are not the end. The O’Neill is a starting place.”

A starting place, over the years, for a lot of plays that went on to have lasting lives on stage: works by August Wilson, including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson”; John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves”; Wendy Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others”; Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods”; and the musical “Nine.”

For much of its nearly 40-year existence, the center, which began in 1964, was the domain of two men: founder George C. White and Lloyd Richards, the first artistic director of the Playwrights Conference. After a long, successful run, Richards left in 1999 and was succeeded by James Houghton. White retired the following year, and Sherman arrived in October 2000. Now, the new team is hard at work, slowly putting its mark on the center and what it represents.

The Playwrights Conference is the center’s best-known program, but the estate is also home to a music-theater conference, a critics’ institute for theater reviewers, a puppetry program, a residency for trustees of nonprofit theaters and the National Theater Institute. It is an accredited college-level training program for actors. The institute’s tuition helps cover much of the center’s $2.4-million annual budget.

The center was named for O’Neill, whose family vacationed in nearby New London and whose summer home there, the Monte Cristo Cottage, was the setting for his “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The center now owns the house and is in the process of restoring the structure.

Sherman, who has worked at such regional theaters as Geva in Rochester, N.Y., and Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, oversees them all. Yet artistic control of the Playwrights Conference is in the hands of Houghton, who also heads the Signature Theatre in New York and is an artistic advisor at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

It was the 43-year-old Houghton, a soft-spoken, unassuming man, who ultimately decided which writers filled the 15 slots--out of 700 or so submissions--in this summer’s monthlong Playwrights Conference, which ends Sunday. Then the music-theater conference takes over, running Aug. 3 through 18.

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There is a three-tiered selection process, beginning with a letter of intent from applicants, a biography and a character breakdown for their plays. Scripts are read and evaluated by more than 50 theater professionals before Houghton and a small advisory board make the final decisions.

This summer’s 15 plays are a diverse lot and so are their authors. Besides works by Smart and Linney, they include “Hindustan,” which deals with the love affair between Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the British viceroy. It was written by William di Canzio, a college professor from Pennsylvania.

Then there’s “Millicent Scowlworthy,” a look at how a group of teenagers deals with the aftereffects of violence, not unlike Columbine, by Rob Handel, a development director for the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York.

“One of the great things about this place is that there is all this support--not only from the staff members, but from other people,” Linney says. “Jim sets a tone here so that there is no competition. All the playwrights support each other.”

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Linney was among several established playwrights asked by Houghton to participate in this year’s conference. They didn’t go through the selection process. Several other playwrights, including August Wilson, were also present as writers-in-residence, able to work on their latest efforts without the pressure of public performances.

Those staged readings are put together quickly. The actors in each show are at the center for a week. There are four days of rehearsal, an afternoon of technical rehearsal and then two performances, scripts in hand, in one of four theater spaces.

“I am working here with people I really trust--I know these guys,” Linney says of his director, his two actors and Houghton, who presented a season of Linney plays at the Signature a decade ago.

It was Noth who suggested to Linney, a friend since they worked together at off-Broadway’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, that he write something about Schwartz. Some two years later, “Klonsky and Schwartz” found its way here.

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“We are able to do things that would drive other people crazy,” Linney says, discussing the intense preparation for his two staged readings. “People sitting here watching these rehearsals think the whole thing is chaos, and we are all nuts. I have changed a million things. There is a lot of give and take. Chris and Mark are ace actors, and if you have any sense as a playwright, you pay a lot of attention to what they are saying.”

“It’s all about discovery,” adds Noth, best known for his television roles as a detective on “Law & Order” and as Big on “Sex and the City.”

“We are here to articulate for Rom--to help him find out what’s not working. Illuminating the different rooms of this play--and there are a lot of them. It’s good, hard work but it’s scary.”

For Houghton, that cooperation is part of the process. He and Sherman have instituted operational changes that are not readily apparent to visitors or people attending the conference.

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“What I tried to do when I came here was to start fresh, to ask some of the same questions that were asked initially when this place began,” Houghton says. “How can we serve our writing community now? What are the challenges a writer faces in the field as it stands now? And apply those answers and ask those questions every single year.

“One of the things we can do is bring as many new people here as possible every year so that we are constantly refueling and seeing this event fresh, seeing it through a first-time experience.... There are no givens except to be flexible and open to change.”

The playwrights now live on the O’Neill campus and can bring their families. Originally, the conference employed five or six directors, who would divide up the plays and hire what essentially became a rep company of actors, who would be around for the duration of the conference.

“Now, there is a director per project, and each show is cast individually,” Sherman says. “This made enormous artistic sense in terms of giving each playwright the best resources for their specific plays.”

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Ask Smart, an O’Neill success story, who worked at the center for two summers as a writer’s assistant before submitting a play to the Playwrights Conference.

“The wonderful thing about having ‘Bebop’ at the O’Neill is that I can have the appropriate actors in the roles,” says Smart, who just finished his first year in the master of fine arts playwriting program at UC San Diego.

“Bebop” grew out of a summer visit to Japan and later a trip to Okinawa.

“In a school production, I wouldn’t have a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old Japanese woman. I would probably have a 25-year-old white girl. It’s wonderful to have the people that I need to do the play. It is empowering to have all these people working with you and just trying to help you tell the story you want to tell.”

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As Sherman explains it, “Everybody does workshops these days. You can’t turn around without someone telling you about their play development series. What we offer is the idea that there are all of these artists at varying levels of their careers here together in the same boat and, ultimately, if they each choose, acting as resources for each other. That’s a very different dynamic.

“Some of the greatest experiences at the O’Neill come out of who you sit next to at lunch--there are no barriers,” he adds. “We all walk around wearing name tags. It creates a leveling effect. Jim and I wear them because it sets the tone. It says, ‘If we can do it, you can do it.’ ”

On a recent cool, mosquito-flecked evening, Smart stood with his actors under the same copper beech tree where they rehearsed for four days.

He smiled broadly as the crowd on bleachers cheered.

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A new play and a real playwright were meeting their audience.


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