Giving voice to playwrights. O'Neill Center hones talent beyond hot lights of Broadway

IT was considered, if anything, culturally quixotic. And that was back in the '60s, when the counterculture was, well, the norm. Sure, it had sentiment going for it, what with the boyhood home of Eugene O'Neill, the granddaddy of American drama, down the road. But a summer theater presenting unknown playwrights, beyond earshot of Broadway's siren song and financed on a cashed-in insurance policy?

Break a leg, as they say.

Over the last two decades, however, the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center has proven itself with the stuff of press agents' dreams. Actors like Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, and Howard Rollins have assisted playwrights like John Guare, Lanford Wilson, and Sam Shepard in productions like ``Agnes of God,'' ``The House of Blue Leaves,'' and ``Fences.''

The O'Neill has left the wings for star billing in American theater.

``I don't know that I would have had a career without the O'Neill,'' says this year's Pulitzer winner for drama, August Wilson, a four-year veteran of the center's Playwrights Conference. ``When I write a play, I don't know what to do with it other than send it to them.''

Where Wilson and nearly 1,500 other aspiring playwrights annually send their scripts is a sea-kissed, nine-acre estate beside the Connecticut shore; a place more reminiscent of a drowsy writers' colony than frantic summer-stock theater. The clacking of typewriters and the soft murmur of actors rehearsing their lines is barely audible over the drone of the cicadas and the cries of the seagulls circling overheard. That sense of geographic solitude, however, belies the vibrant spirit of artistic community at the O'Neill.

What began experimentally in 1964 as a summer adjunct of Yale University's Drama School became known by the mid-'70s as ``Try-out-town USA.'' Today, the center has settled down to business, maintaining its reputation as a nurturer of new playwrights.

In fact, this summer, the O'Neill is completing its most successful season ever. Both its artistic director, Lloyd Richards, and favorite-son playwright, August Wilson, walked off with the year's Tony awards for best director and best play with ``Fences,'' the current New York success that got its start at the O'Neill in 1983.

Proof of the center's success can also be found in the growing number of developmental theaters in the United States and abroad patterned after the O'Neill: places like Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah, the Australian National Playwrights Conference, and the hundreds of ``second stages'' at US regional theaters.

Still, the O'Neill remains unique - a theater whose creative process builds success through a careful balancing of visibility and isolation. Most of the O'Neill productions - actually script-in-hand, staged readings - are not immediately Broadway-bound; most continue to be revised in workshops at other regional theaters.

Nonetheless, the center is one of the summer watering holes for many of the nation's theatrical cognoscenti, who make an annual hajj to the O'Neill. On any given day, Broadway producers, New York directors, and regional-theater literary managers can be found circulating on the center's bucolic grounds, here buttonholing a playwright, there sitting in on an al-fresco rehearsal. It's all part of the center's ensemble approach that extends beyond the playwrights to include the actors, directors, dramaturgs, and even apprentice critics participating in the O'Neill's resident National Critics Institute.

``The O'Neill gives the beginning playwright the opportunity to work with a whole different level of theater professional,'' explains Mr. Wilson. ``It's about experience and visibility...''

What draws the thousands of aspiring dramatists to bombard the O'Neill's literary staff with manuscripts every year - a mountain of paper from which is culled the dozen or so playwright fellows - has as much to do with that sense of community as it does with the man who fostered it, artistic director Richards.

The acclaimed director of the 1959 Broadway hit ``Raisin in the Sun,'' Richards was given the nod as O'Neill artistic director by the center's president, George White (the holder of that cashed-in insurance policy) in the late 1960s. It was about the time when the number of limos ferrying New York producers to the O'Neill's grassy confines threatened to swamp the center's mission of providing a home for playwrights.

Richards weeded out the ``pre-Broadway'' syndrome by banning reviews and insisting that producers not solicit playwrights and their works until after the conference. In place of that commercial pressure, Richards has cultivated a sense of community. Indeed, most writers treat the O'Neill like summer camp, a cultural retreat to which they repeatedly return.

``Coming to the O'Neill year after year is like having your batteries recharged,'' says Edith Oliver, chief theater critic for The New Yorker and a longtime O'Neill dramaturg. ``It's being around all these people. It's being around Lloyd Richards.''

Richards, who is also the artistic director of the nearby Yale Repertory Theater, prefers to focus on the work at hand. ``This is the place to try and experiment,'' says the taciturn director, holding a meeting atop a picnic table. ``My goal is create an environment for people to take chances in a short amount of time.''

During the month-long conference, each writer is given four days in which to workshop and rework his play. It's an intensive rehearsal period in which the usual artistic priorities are reversed: Actors, director, and author focus on the text rather than the production. ``We're really trying to find a talent, not a finished playwright,'' Richards says.

Although the O'Neill formula has remained virtually untouched since Richards came on board, some changes have evolved. Most significantly, the O'Neill is seeing the down side of its own success - an increased competition among theaters today for promising new writers. ``There are literally hundreds of theaters today snatching [scripts] out of the playwright's typewriters,'' says Richards.

Still, the O'Neill continues to do what it does best: allow playwrights to develop their talent within an established community.

``The O'Neill gives the beginning writer instant credibility,'' says playwright Nancy Grome. ``Before coming here I didn't have a career. Now I do.''

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