"Where Plays Are Born and Tried in Tranquility": George White and the O'Neill Playwrights Conference

A play is conceived in private by a writer and his or her muse, but it is brought into the world in the company of sweating actors, satisfied directors, attentive critics, and finally the public. Every summer a dozen or so struggling playwrights pack their typewriters and trek to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, to deliver a new play. Removed from the bustle of the city, the playwrights can luxuriate in a paradisiacal summer camp of sprawling lawns, sandy beaches, and sunken gardens populated by a community of theater professionals on hand to serve their needs. “It is an Eden as far as the playwright is concerned,” one participant has commented. “In fact, I suspect that in one sense, it is always downhill after the O’Neill.”

This cozy nesting ground for playwrights is the brainchild of George White, who founded the O’Neill Center in 1965. “There were so many ‘truths’ about the theater I questioned,” White once said, describing the origins of the O’Neill. “Actors are stupid. Directors are tyrants. Critics are destructive. I wanted to start a place where we could get away from all that.”

If O’Neill playwrights are rarely coddled so lovingly in the real world as they are in Waterford, their plays often go on to receive royal treatment. Maury Yeston’s musical Nine began at the center’s Composer-Librettist Conference under the title Nights with Guido before Tommy Tune or Arthur Kopit got involved. John Pielmier’s Agnes of God went through a workshop at the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference years before Amanda Plummer won a Tony for playing the title role on Broadway. John Guare, Lanford Wilson, and Israel Horovitz worked on new plays there before anybody knew who they were, and such acclaimed recent works as Bent, Eminent Domain, and Uncommon Women and Others originated as works-in-progress at Waterford.

The O’Neill’s 18th annual playwrights conference is currently in full swing. By August 7, 12 plays will have received intensive three-day rehearsals, two staged readings, and a morning-after critique, all open to the public; four scripts for television will have been similarly rehearsed. Directors huddle with their casts under the massive beech trees on the O’Neill grounds. Celebrity visitors stand in the beer line at “Happy Hour” like everybody else. Over cafeteria-style meals, critics and actors warily get to know one another as fellow participants in making theater.

This year’s playwrights are mostly new to the theater, though not necessarily young (their ages range from early 20s to late 50s). Some have already achieved a measure of recognition, such as Susan Yankowitz, who in the 1960s created the text for the Open Theater’s production of Terminal, and Harry Kondoleon, who recently drew rave reviews for three one-acts produced Off-Off Broadway. Some playwrights are returning to the O’Neill, such as Kathleen Betsko and Yale Udoff, and others are completely unknown, such as Terrence Ortwein, a Choate theater professor making his playwriting debut with The Bunkhouse. Experienced or not, all are here to find out, as gently as possible exactly what is wrong with their scripts while there is plenty of time for fixing. One observer has described the O’Neill experience as “the old pre-Broadway road tryout, without the vomiting.”

“There have been plays here over the years that I think are pretty awful,” confesses George White, settling into a leather sofa in his air-conditioned office at the O’Neill “mansion.” “But I stand behind the selection of the playwright every single time. We really are looking for the playwright show shows promise, more than the play that can be a hit.”

White oversees the administration and operation of the center’s year-round activities, including the National Theater Institute’s training program, the National Theater of the Deaf’s touring company, and separate conferences on choreography and musical theater. His equal partner in this enterprise is Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale Drama School, who runs the playwrights’ conference as artistic director. It is Richards who coordinates the committee of critics, directors, and other theater professionals that selects scripts from more than 1,000 submissions a year.

Drawing from the stock of fine regional theater talent, Richards also hires the directors (this year’s include Barnett Kellman, Amy Saltz, and Tony Giordano) and chooses the actors, who must be temperamentally suited to play three or four roles within a short span of time. Many directors and actors return again and again, forming a loose repertory company well-versed in the O’Neill system, and such fine performers as Meryl Streep, Swoosie Kurtz, and Al Pacino have spent summers doing new plays in Waterford.

During the summer, White’s primary responsibility is for the care and feeding of the hundreds of participants and visitors who pass through. “I’m the innkeeper,” he jokes. He spends the rest of the year raising money for the O’Neill, whose $1.7 million budget comes from a combination of government grants, corporate contributions, and private donations. He also sits on the executive boards of numerous nonprofit arts organizations, from Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute to the Met’s Opera Guild. And he travels across the country and abroad as a sort of cultural ambassador, in which capacity he has recently visited both the People’s Republic of China – where he hopes to direct Anna Christie next year – and the Soviet Union. If all goes well, a contingent of Soviet artists including two playwrights, an actress, and a director will participate in this year’s playwrights conference, presenting two new Russian plays at the O’Neill the first week of August.

White sees this international exchange as a potentially profitable venture, not just a gesture of goodwill. “One of the ideals we try to foster,” he says, “is for playwrights to make a living as playwrights. There’s a whole world out there that we are not tapping into as an outlet for plays.”

No one is more familiar with the O’Neill’s ideals than White: he’s the one who formulated them. A Waterford native, White was 26 and fresh out of Yale Drama School when he convinced the town council to give him a $1-a-year lease on the hundred-acre Hammond Estate for what he envisioned as a sane environment for the development of theater. When he launched the playwrights conference in 1965, the regional theater movement was just getting started and groups like the New Dramatists Committee and Ellen Stewart’s La Mama were beginning vigorously to promote new plays by young playwrights. White and the O’Neill became instrumental in bringing these two factions together.

“When regional theaters started out, they wouldn’t touch new plays and I could understand that,” says White. “When you are trying to get your roots down in Cincinnati, you’re not about to do Sam Shepard’s Red Cross or Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright, good as those plays are. But we worked hard, and eventually people got the idea it would be good to do new plays.”

Nowadays he is very optimistic about the future for American drama, especially in terms of competing with other media. “In five to 10 years, motion pictures and television won’t be as we know them at all,” he predicts. “Our houses will be electronic marvels linked by fiber optics. We won’t need to go out to the movies – we’ll simple go to the telephone and dial a number that’ll be announced in the newspaper and have it charged to our phone bills. So the reason to go out will be to go to the theater. And because of the artistic freedoms achieved in the ‘60s, the theater has become the true medium for writers to express what they really want to say about themselves and about society. It’s still the only place going.”

White’s passion for theater is infectious and it has cemented his reputation for being a good fund-raiser. Friendly, articulate, unpretentious, he’s just the sort of person one could imagine calling the Rockefeller Foundation to ask for a favor or coaxing the legendary illustrator Erte into designing the poster for the O’Neill this season. 

Though he finds it hard to think of himself as one of the “grand old men” of the regional theater movement, White recognizes that he has been doing it for almost 20 years now and he acknowledges the potential for professional burn-out. “You do get tired of fund-raising, and the politics, and the personality problems, and the sewage system and the roof that leaks,” he says. “But unlike Gordon Davidson or Zelda Fichandler and the others, I’ve had the luxury of not having to come up with a subscription season and raising money for the same thing every year. The O’Neill is different in that we are always trying to address issues and problems.”

Responding to the decline in drama development by network television, for example, the O’Neill instituted a New Drama for Television project in 1976. The Composer-Librettist Conference (now called the National Opera and Musical Theater Institute) was established, White says, “because musicals are at the place now where plays were when we started the O’Neill.” This year, in keeping with the international tone of the playwrights conference, the O’Neill is sponsoring a seminar on translation. “I’ve found that, because everybody comes through here at this time of year, the O’Neill is a very good forum to focus attention on these kinds of issues,” he says.

What are the burning issues today? “They are all the ongoing issues,” says White. “Finding outlets so that playwrights can make a living. Keeping up with the new technology – cable TV, holography, whatever. Training students without going through the academic process. Turning kids on to the discipline of theater so we can begin to compete with the training the British get, which is superb.

“All of it comes down to the question of how do you make the arts central to our society the way they are in other societies? I grew up in a family obsessed with art; art was an integral part of one’s existence, like food. But that’s not true for most Americans. It’s partly because we stem from a Puritan, Calvinist tradition in which the arts were considered indulgent, decadent, sinful things; intellectual interest is sublimated in favor of work. That’s the tradition, and it’s very hard to break.

“I’ll give you a classic example of American attitudes toward theater,” White says. “An actor I know was working at the Hartford Stage Company and he invited his landlord to come see the play he was in. The landlord – not a dumb guy, just a middle-class businessman – blushed and stammered and finally said, ‘Gee, I’d like to -- but I don’t have a tuxedo.’”

He pounds his fist into his palm, amused but indignant. “That mystique is part of what you’re fighting,” he says. “That’s why we have open rehearsals here. A rehearsal is a construction site; people can come see one brick put on another. See what an actor has to wrestle with. See what a playwright has to change. It’s not mystical. It’s just work. People have to know that.”

New York Times, July 25, 1982