When George C. White held dual positions as founding executive director and chairman of the board of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., there was a unity of policy, program, and vision. White's retirement late last year found the positions split more traditionally, with Howard Sherman, former managing director of the Rochester's GeVa Theater, assuming the executive director role, and producer Tom Viertel becoming board chairman. By all accounts, however, the unanimity of vision remains unchanged.
The foundation for the O'Neill's next phase of life begins with White's legacy, Viertel says. A virtual one-man whirlwind, White created "the first organization to seize hold of the idea of finding and culturing new voices and new work, and so occupies a very special place in the theatre. I think the O'Neill's reputation is still essentially unparalleled, but now, there's a reaching out process that has to take place for the O'Neill to integrate itself into the larger world of the theatre."
Viertel sees "increased cooperation with other not-for-profit theatres that are full production houses, and certainly communication with and perhaps cooperation with commercial producing entities as well" as part of the O'Neill's continued development.
Today, the O'Neill's suite of programs includes the legendary Playwrights Conference, Music Theater Conference, Critics Institute, Puppetry Conference, Cabaret Symposium, and the National Theatre Institute, an accredited undergraduate program. Near their "campus" abutting Long Island Sound is the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, which the O'Neill also oversees and which Sherman and Viertel equally view as integral to their future plans.
"I want to see a trip here-more than one-as absolutely essential for anyone producing theatre in the United States," Sherman says. To do this, Sherman and Viertel tout their predecessor's success-made evident by the proliferation of similar programs elsewhere and by the growth of regional theatre-while recommitting themselves to a sense of groundbreaking.
Part of that commitment was selecting James Houghton, formerly artistic director of the Signature Theatre Company, as the artistic director of the O'Neill, replacing Lloyd Richards.
"In Jim," Viertel says, "we have a superb guy in the area of material-not only a man whose life revolves around the play, but around the playwright. He is perhaps the only person in America you can point to who has a c.v. that proves that. He brings to the table relationships with highly established playwrights who elevate the level of discussion, not only in terms of their own knowledge, but in the type of discussion you can have. It's one thing to discuss the work, but it's wonderful to hear Romulus Linney or Edward Albee discuss what it's like to be a playwright."
Ideally, Viertel says, "The O'Neill is a stop that no one can ignore. There needs to be a reason why going to the O'Neill is better than a one-off for a particular stage of development. We have to be part of the chain that introduces the theatre that audiences see."
As chairman, Viertel's role varies from being a "sounding board" for Sherman to managing the O'Neill's 28-member board, perhaps being "slightly expanded" in the future. As executive director, Sherman runs the day-to-day shop and manages the O'Neill's $2.5 million annual budget. Acknowledging a history of financial difficulties, both regard the O'Neill's economic stabilization as a top priority.
RESIDENCY FOR TRUSTEES
Sherman also revealed plans for a pilot program offering trustees of other theatres a week-long residency so these "enormous supporters have an opportunity to really come inside in a working theatrical organization and hopefully take that excitement and that energy back to their own theatres and to their other trustees."
Viertel and Sherman also plan to actively promote the O'Neill's atmosphere, one of its greatest assets. For Sherman, it's "a retreat where writers, directors, actors, special guests, audience, educators, even trustees of other theatres can create a really exciting mix so that the experience of being at the O'Neill is absolutely centered on the development of new work...The way in which we can inform people and in which people can have a deeper experience surrounding that work is what ultimately makes us unique. We are very powerfully tied to that extraordinary piece of real estate that the town of Waterford has let us use for 36 years. We ask ourselves every day, how do we expand on the strengths that we have?"