PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Preston Whiteway, Executive Director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

By Sophia Saifi
22 Jul 2013

Question: The O'Neill's 50th anniversary is coming up. Jeffery Sweet, who is working on the anniversary book, said there are some interesting stories about the history of the O'Neill.

Whiteway: We are documenting in a couple of major ways [how] the O'Neill has transformed and changed the face of American theatre. One of these efforts is a book that will be published by Yale University Press that will document that story. We've been speaking with a number of alumni and we were speaking with Robert Redford who came here in the early 80s to study what we do, because he wanted to bring the O'Neill model to film and to create a place that was a retreat setting for screenwriters to work on their pieces. Of course that succeeded brilliantly and exploded into being the Sundance Festival. 

Sundance Theatre Lab is our closest organization that has the most similar mission as the O'Neill, except they don't do audiences. What was really humbling was that he based it all on the O'Neill.

Question: When is the book going to be published?

Whiteway: It comes out on May 2014. The other exciting element is that the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts will be doing an exhibition and will visually tell the story of the O'Neill, also in May 2014.

Question: Have you ever been tempted to bring in big name actors to promote the public readings at the O'Neill?

Whiteway: We are not the National Actors Conference, we are the National Playwrights Conference, and we are constantly focused on the script. We are focused on making the work central and make it the best it can be. So at the next step, when the production manager brings in costume and lights, the script is the best it can be.

Question: What are your favorite moments at the O'Neill? 

Whiteway: Generally a favorite moment is watching a playwright watch his or her work go up for the first time. The look of joy and terror on their face reminds me why we're doing what we're doing. I also love when work is born here that we had nothing to do with. Over a late-night drink together, people meet at the O'Neill and go create something completely new and different.

What can better than when Jake Shears is at the O'Neill? When he was the composer for Tales of The City, he DJ-ed a party at the pub.

Question: What's next for the O'Neiil?

Whiteway: The launch for our new undergraduate theatre for music theatre will transform the O'Neill because of the new buildings on campus. Also we will be launching new composers, new actors, new choreographers with this program. It is an exciting time. The work has never been better.

Question: Do you see yourself sticking around?

Whiteway: I love this place. I might not be on the 40-year plan that George White was on, but I look forward to the future and what's wonderful about this place is that it is constantly reinventing itself. I look forward to constantly reinventing myself.