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WAY OFF BROADWAY: New Plays and Musicals at the O’Neill

June 29th, 2011

When there’s a month with a fifth Wednesday, I’ll be heading Way-Off-Broadway for a look at theatrical happenings outside New York City. So pack your duffels, grab your bug spray and get ready to romance a boy from the cabin next door; we’re off to summer camp…

Image via The O'Neill Theater Center.

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT is magic. Not slight of hand “magic” but real, wondrous magic. Each summer, its ragtag assemblage of barns and cabins springs to life, like the gently sloping meadow on which it sits, and suddenly blooms with new works of theater.

Playwrights, notebook in hand, wander the grounds trying to talk out a scene–and not be tempted to the inviting stretch of beach just down the path. Composers, shuffling freshly printed pages, duck into makeshift rehearsal rooms to teach singers a song they just wrote. Visitors, instead of filing out of a theater after a play reading, stay put and engage in spirited conversations with the creative team. Shows, following in the footsteps of Avenue Q and The House of Blue Leaves, grow into fully articulated works. That’s the O’Neill magic; a place where artists and audiences, daytrippers and diehards, join together with a no-frills positivity that is, in my experience, unmatched in the world of theater development.

"The Dream of the Burning Boy", NPC 2010.

Personally, I’d suggest you quit reading now and just head up there and experience the Tony-winning O’Neill for yourself…but I suppose I’m biased. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent two of the most formative and artistically satisfying times of my life dodging writers block and jellyfish in Waterford. Just to give you a sense of the kind of real work you can witness on a visit to the O’Neill, a show I co-wrote received a workshop at the O’Neill. During our two weeks, we completely rewrote and tossed out half of the score of our musical between public readings on a Wednesday and a Saturday. The creative energy was so intense, some members of the cast called me “Heathcliff” because they would see me with my rhyming dictionary at 2 in the morning, walking the “moors”. However, far from a spirit of brooding with a capital Bronte, the campus is filled with laughter; we giggled our way through broiling heatwaves, marauding skunks, drinks at Blue Gene’s Pub and moonlit walks on a beach dotted with amorous actors. (Did I mention it’s kind of like summer camp for Broadway-types? Read this interview to find out what shenanigans were going on behind my back!)

Whether as a viewer or a participant, this energy is infectious because everyone is there for one thing: to help writers tell their stories without the distraction of producers or critics or day jobs. Or sleep.

So how can you join in and be a part of the creation of new works of theater? Just head up 95 (drive times vary wildly depending on traffic), walk the grounds and buy a ticket to any one of the three major conferences (unfortunately, this year’s Puppetry Conference already ended June 18th):

"Picnic at Hanging Rock", NMTC 2009.

NATIONAL MUSIC THEATER CONFERENCE: This year, four shows are getting the “O’Neill Treatment”:  a series of script in hand readings, spaced throughout the conference to allow for rewrites and experimentation. The topics range from a time-hopping romance from a team that includes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson composer Michael Friedman, a bluegrass rock musical, a Wonder Woman-inspired love story (um…cool!), and a Parisian cabaret musical. Performances have already begun and run through July 15.

NATIONAL PLAYWRIGHTS CONFERENCE: Stretching back 45 years, the Playwrights Conference has seen the development of works by August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein and John Patrick Shanley. From July 6 – 30, eight playwrights continue this storied tradition including Quiara Alegría Hudes, bookwriter for the Tony-winning In the Heights, and Dan LeFranc, recipient of the 2010 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award.

CABARET & PERFORMANCE CONFERENCE: From August 3 – 13, watch some of the best entertainers in the biz explore the art of solo performance, including the incomparable Lillias White, Jim Dale and Euan Morton. Plus, stay after the official show for surprising “open mic” sets from guest artists and faculty.

For more information on ticketing, directions and the venerable history of the center, visit their comprehensive website.

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