Tales From the O'Neill: Celebrating the Summer Gala With Michael Douglas

News   Tales From the O'Neill: Celebrating the Summer Gala With Michael Douglas
Playbill.com offers an inside look at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Summer Gala. 

Rita Hendel and Michael Douglas at the gala
Rita Hendel and Michael Douglas at the gala

Theatre folk are prone to hyperbole. Everything is "grand," everything is "fabulous" and "magic" is a word that is used often at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

But when describing the center's seventh annual summer gala, held July 20, "magical" is the only word that can capture the ambience of the evening.

Held to honor the Hendel family and their contributions to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, the gala was attended by members of theatre community, all of whom had, in some way, been touched by the O'Neill and the work of the Hendels.  

Actor Michael Douglas, who was once an intern at the O'Neill and has long been a patron of the center, was in attendance. Speaking to Playbill.com about the O'Neill's legacy to American theatre, he said, "It's a reflection in all of the shows that have come out of here, both Off-Broadway and on Broadway and through regional theatre, so it's really become one of the epicenters for developing new material, and it is extremely important. I am really proud to have been a part of this place."

The morning of July 20 had seen a flurry of constant activity at the O'Neill. Interns were hard at work transforming the grounds into a summer wonderland. Tiny fairy lights twinkled along the stone walls of the sunken garden where a giant white marquis shone under the full moon. A thunderstorm had been predicted and giant golf umbrellas were at hand in case of a downpour. The night, however, went on without a hitch and clear skies reigned supreme. The Summer Gala at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center is the highlight of the regional theatre's summer season, and the Connecticut-based Hendels have strong ties to the institution. In the 1970's, Rita and Myron Hendel served as trustees of the organization. Their son Stephen Hendel is the current treasurer of the board and his wife Ruth serves as vice-chair. Ruth and Steve have produced many Broadway shows, including Fela!, In the Heights, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The House of Blue Leaves, several of which were born at the O’Neill.

Praising the Hendels, chairman of the board Tom Viertel said, "Rita Hendel was a terrific friend, someone who genuinely loved the O'Neill and its place in her community. She served through good times and not so good times, all with a great spirit."

He described Hendel as an exceptional producer with, "the enthusiasm of a teenager and the expertise of a college professor."

Rita Hendel shared her memories of the O'Neill, saying, "When I was a 16 year old, I would drive down here in my old bomber and it was the coolest thing I had ever done, and that just really inspired me." 

Sahr Ngaujah performs at the gala

"It's emotional being here," Hendel said. "This is where my parents were involved for 50 years. This is where we went on dates when we were in high school. Performers like Meryl Streep performed here."

For Hendel, attending the gala was like a homecoming. "It is a really important institution for American theatre. This is the place that is our home."

The gala saw performances from shows that the Hendels had produced. Recent National Music Theater Conference participant and lyricist Christopher Dimond rewrote the lyrics of the song "In the Heights" to honor the Hendels, and the original cast members from the time the musical In the Heights was workshopped at the O'Neill were at hand to perform the song.

Merwin Goldsmith and Kathryn Grody performed an excerpt from Old Jews Telling Jokes while Sahr Ngaujah, Oneika Philllips and Malaiyka Reid got the guests dancing to songs from Fela!

Speaking to Playbill about being back at the O'Neill, Ngaujah said, "The O'Neill is a benchmark and turning point in my life. Most of the work that I have done in my life, I feel is quite significant, but nothing has the impact on my relatonshop to art and the rest of the world like Fela! The birth of it for the mainstream was at Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. To come here and participate in honoring Ruth and Steve Hendel, who I love deeply, and their family, it is wonderful." Bill T. Jones, dancer and director of Fela!, sent a special video message in honor of the Hendels, in which he he thanked Steve for his patronage and performed a specially choreographed dance to Nina Simone's "Take Me to the Water." 

Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, was present at the gala and was full of praise for the O'Neill's place in American theatre.

"I always think of the O'Neill as the first place that recognizes the importance of focusing on the process for a playwright, of finding the play and not selling the play. It has been a respite where a playwright can find his/her own voice," she said. "This place has clearly been an incubator and a nourisher of the great playwrights."

As the night continued, the guests continued to dance to "Everything Scatter" from Fela! George White, the founder of the O'Neill, was in the crowd moving along with the students from the National Theater Institute. Executive director of the O'Neill, Preston Whiteway, conversed with Myron Hendel.

The generations mingled as music from Nigeria blared into the sky and the spirit of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center kept its spark alive. With the Center due to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014, it looked like its future was in capable hands.

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