Tales From the O'Neill: Highlights From The National Playwrights Conference
By Sophia Saifi
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the highlights of the National Playwrights Conference.
Unexpected thunderstorms, eight plays spanning two continents and wonderfully eccentric moments at the beach are just some of the events that made up the 49th annual National Playwrights Conference (NPC) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
It has been an eventful month in Waterford, CT. Renowned for being a place where playwrights can work on their scripts without any hindrance from the outside world, the campus of the O'Neill is far removed from the urban landscape of the city. Time here is known as O'Neill time: It is slow and languid. Days start at 7 AM and go on late into the night, ending with poker games and bottles of whiskey. Production managers alert residents of the arrival of ice cream vans through the radio and misty mornings begin with the distant groan of foghorns from Long island Sound.
Jen Silverman described her time at the O'Neill has been "wonderful," while Samuel D. Hunter, who was last here eight years ago, described it as a homecoming, saying, "I don't think I'm overstating it when I say the O'Neill really feels like a home to me."
On the last two days of the conference, Wendy C. Goldberg, artistic director of the NPC, sits down with each playwright and discusses the future of his or her play. She said the aim is to "try to help create opportunity and work toward production plans."
While much work was produced and presented this summer, fun was never far from the picture, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn killing it at live band karaoke to the appearance of a mysterious stripper's pole.
Here's a look at some the most memorable moments at this year's National Playwrights Conference.
Pinning The Program
This is a long-standing tradition at the O'Neill and not specific to the NPC. At the end of the final public reading of a play, playwrights nail their programs to the rafters of Blue Gene's Pub for posterity. Organized by the literary office of the O'Neill, the pinning is hosted by literary manager Anne G. Morgan.
"It is a way to celebrate the amount of hard work the artist does over their time with us," said Morgan.
Programs from the immediate past three seasons line the rafters and are put up there at the start of the summer by the literary office.
Tom Viertel, Broadway producer and chairman of the O'Neill board, is a barbecue connoisseur and for over a decade, he and his partner Pat Daily have been hosting a decedent summer cookout for board members, conference attendees and the O'Neill staff.
Viertel has the event catered by legendary pit-master Mike Mills's BBQ place in Illinois, and he and Pat personally smoked the ribs themselves the day before the barbecue.
This year saw a neverending array of platters piled with ribs, deep bowls of crispy cole slaw and thick slices of white cake.
Held immediately following the quarterly board meeting in the sunken garden, there was an open bar and playwrights and designers mingled, after which most people headed down for a dip in the sea.
This summer the outdoor Edith Oliver Memorial Theatre was transformed into places as diverse as a warzone in Iraq (Martin Zimmerman's Solid Sand Below) to a remote cabin in Idaho (Samuel D. Hunter's A Great Wilderness), yet its most memorable guise must be as the location of this year's intern dance party.
The event's name might imply that it is only for the partying purposes of interns, but it is a night for playwrights, actors and senior staff to let off steam after a month of hard work.
The Edith was lit up in shades of violet and tangerine, and the stylized face of Eugene O’Neill himself illuminated the giant copper beech tree that covers the stage.
The best part was the stripper pole that stood proudly at the base of the Edith tree. The stage was the dance floor where Tony Award winners and young theatre students partied together.
Dylan Zwickel, an intern at the O'Neill, said her favorite part about the party was the fact that "everyone gets to let loose and have fun together, and no one has to feel self-conscious because everyone is having a good time."
The party itself was a testament of the hard work of the sound and lighting teams. Released from the constraints of working on a prescribed project, they devoted their talents to the music and the manic mood of the evening.
After a month living and working together in very close quarters, a sense of community had been established at the O’Neill.
As Jillian Ruben, the internship coordinator, said, "by the end of July, everyone found a family here and everyone loves the O'Neill. We have the dance party as a way for everyone to say goodbye."
Live Band Karaoke
Designer Brian Lillienthal is a constant fixture on the porch of the Farmhouse, where he holds court, perpetually grilling something delicious and offering sage words of advice to his interns.
Known lovingly as Uncle Brian, he is also the master wizard behind the grand live band karaoke that takes place every year at the O'Neill. It is a big bash that proclaims the end of the NPC.
This year's event saw Auburn perform Johnny Cash's hit "Jackson," while playwrights Lauren Yee, Jeff Augustin and Michael Yates Crowley invoked Ike and Tina Turner with their own rendition of "Proud Mary."
According to Goldberg, live band is the brainchild of Lillienthal and designer Matt Callaghan.
"Live band celebrates the singer in all of us and gives everyone an opportunity to shine, blow off steam and come together in an amazing atmosphere to close down the conference," said Goldberg.
Wendy herself performed with actors from The Solid Sand Below, Terrell Donnell Sledge and Brian Quijada. Known as "Dub G and The Swirlz," the hip-hop trio busted out a big band version of Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" and brought the house down with their wild moves.
With a band made up of Brian Lillienthal, Brad Simmons, Christopher Slaughter, Alex Jainchill, Dave Anderson and Benji Inniger, the music was the final goodbye to a truly memorable conference.
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