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

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22 Jul 2013

Preston Whiteway
Preston Whiteway sits down with Preston Whiteway, the executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. 

Whiteway is a perfectionist. The 32-year-old is a great represtentaion of the young energy that buzzes throughout the campus. He oversees the theatre center throught the year and is currently at the helm of the summer season.

Whiteway can be seen around the grounds in his red trousers and O'Neill baseball hat, managing and moving along the major national conferences that the O'Neill hosts. Under his leadership, the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was awarded the 2010 Regional Theater Tony Award and has recently been awarded a grant of $3 million by the state of Connecticut to open a National Music Theater Institute for undergraduates.

With the O'Neill celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014, Whiteway sat down with to discuss Jake Shears, the beginings of In The Heights and the fact that Robert Redford was inspired by the O'Neill to start the Sundance Institute. 

Question: How did you end up at the O'Neill?

Preston Whiteway: It's all thanks to a man named Emanuel "Manny" Azenberg. He produced all of Neil Simon's work on Broadway. He would fly down once a week to teach a course at Duke. He took a lot of time out of his schedule to come teach down there. It was the most amazing class I ever took there.

He would take each one of us out to dinner or breakfast while he was there and listen to our dreams. He learned that I wanted to be in arts management or producing or something. Every week he would give the class three plays to read and he would take the cover page off and we would have to read it without forming prejudgments about the play. We had to just dive in.

One of the responses I got from him midway through the course was that he wrote a name and number and it was here at the O'Neill. He had heard that they were looking for a general manager and he had recommended me. The O'Neill at that time certainly could not afford a real person, I mean an experienced person. The only reason they took me on was that they could only afford a kid.

Question: You were only 22! What was that like? You are the one who gives the orientation speech to everyone who comes to the O'Neill. What was your first time here like?

Whiteway: It was like being shot out of a cannon. I got here a week before the Puppetry Conference started and immediately the summer schedule started and we were not prepared. None of us had seen a summer before. The O'Neill was in tough fiscal shape, but we found a way to muddle through. The artistic director had resigned one day before the Playwrights Conference. It was tough going there. There were a lot of logistical challenges.

Question: Had you ever encountered puppets before like that?

Whiteway: No, it was wild; it was like drinking from a fire hose. You just had to hold on as the onslaught of the summer was upon us. The work, though, was great! That was the first that we had ever combined the Playwrights and Music Theatre Conferences on top of each other, so none of us had ever been through the summer. There was artistry happening all over the campus. We found that it was such a positive experience. I likened it to a Balkan state. Each program was separate and enclosed and sidled away from each other. It has been a big effort of mine and the boards to have the conferences to interact.

Question: I was watching your 2010 Tony acceptance speech. Who has served as your mentors at the O'Neill?

Whiteway: When I first got here I had never fundraised and the woman in the executive director position was Amy Sullivan. [Sullivan], Tom Viertel and Manny, those are my three principal mentors. It was a surreal six weeks when the Tony was announced.

Question: Where were you when the Tony was announced?

Whiteway: I was, of all places, sitting in a pew in church and I got a text message. All I wanted to do was scream.


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