“Into the Woods” — Playwrights and Composers Remember Summers at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

John Guare, Samuel D. Hunter and George C. White share memories of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center with Playbill.com.

John Guare
John Guare (Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia)

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It wasn't just the farm house, the retreat from the bustling city streets or the fact that Eugene O'Neill romanced girlfriend Barbara Ashe on those grounds. But according to several panelists in the discussion on the legacy of the O'Neill Theater Center, titled 50 Years Later; the Development Path to Production, it was the ethos that the playwright, and not the play, came first.

"If it had just been to say lets start by picking the play, it would not have existed because nobody knew where the plays were," said Tony winner John Guare during the panel discussion, which was held May 29 at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts. "The obligation that we all had — that we were being trusted to be part of a new world and to know that we would deliver something and the judgement had already been made on us — that was the thrill."

Guare was invited to a playwrights conference in 1965 to discuss what "playwrights need" in the newly created O'Neill center in Waterford, CT, after author Audrey Wood saw a performance of his third-year thesis play at the Yale Drama school. Guare and several other young playwrights, including Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson, hoped on a bus in Times Square and headed up to George C. White's farmhouse in rural Connecticut. It was there that his Tony Award-winning play, The House of Blue Leaves, came to life.

"We all went up on the bus and we said, 'Is this like the fresh air fund?' We didn't know what is was," Guare said. The history surrounding that era was murky for aspiring playwrights. Guare described is at as a time where Off-Broadway was "too big a dream" and there was "no theatre to be part of." It was the creation of the O' Neill Center that helped fill the absence of community.

"As a director I think I was so moved by the philosophy at the O'Neill and I think it was in the drinking water," said Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club and director at the National Playwright Conference at the O'Neill. "It was the idea that was imparted to every artist there that the word starts with the playwright... we worshipped the playwright and it was about the playwright."

Samuel D. Hunter
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The conference, held in the New York Performance Arts Library, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the O'Neill Theater Center. Located in New London, CT, the O'Neill Center has expanded to include other conferences in puppetry, musical theatre and cabaret. It has boasted a pantheon of renowned works, such as August Wilson's Fences, In the Heights, Avenue Q and Guare's House of Blue Leaves. It also served as a launchpad for Meryl Streep, Danny DeVito, Wendy Wasserstein and Michael Douglas, who performed in productions in the National Playwrights Conference. And it was an idea that founder George C. White "backed into," when riding in a boat with his father and wife.

"I backed into it — I would love to say that it was full blown from my brow, but it didn't," White said.

White caught wind of the fact there were plans to transform the Hammond estate into a training ground for firefighters, White thought it would better serve the Yale drama community as a performing space. But when Yale turned down his offer, White began to approach dramatists. And the rest is history.

"I think I actually learned how to re-write a play when I was at the O'Neill," said playwright Samuel D. Hunter, who attended O'Neill in 2005 and 2013. Hunter described the level of "safety" present in graduate school that can prevent a playwright from moving forward. His director Max Wilk changed his career when he critiqued his play Norman Rockwell Killed My Father.

"He sat me down after reading my play and he said that my second act wasn't worth two cents — and nobody had every spoken to me like that," Hunter said. "And the thing of it is I knew he was profoundly correct." Hunter is returning as a resident playwright at the O'Neill summer 2014.

Playwright and co-creator of the musical In the Heights, Quiara Alegria Hudes, worked tirelessly with composer Lin-Manuel Miranda on the construct for the musical. "We were all young and it was all very new to us so we were inventing the wheel," Hudes said. "What we learned is at the end of the two weeks something still wasn't working. It wasn't the piece we felt in our heart it should be... we knew we had to make bigger decisions than we had been making."

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the O'Neill, the NYPL is hosting an exhibit, "Launchpad of the American Theatre," which runs through Sept. 16. Visit nypl.org for more information.