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

Theater: For nearly 40 years, the Connecticut institution has nurtured playwrights. Now a new team is at the controls.


WATERFORD, Conn. — 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.

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.

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."

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.

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