American Theatre Critics compare notes in Connecticut

by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
The Dual Critics traveled to Connecticut this year for the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association. As guests of The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, we had the opportunity to spend time on campus and learn about its influential role in new play development, its multiple educational programs for theatrical professionals, and its public offerings. The O’Neill was honored with a 2010 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. This amazing theatre complex was founded in 1964 and has been home to playwrights, composers, lyricists, actors, students, critics, cabaret artists and puppeteers from all over the world
The National Playwrights Conference, established in 1965, selects up to eight plays for production during the summer season. This year, Wendy Goldberg, the Artistic Director of the conference, received over 800 applications; applicants ranged from those working on a first play to seasoned Broadway veterans. What’s the attraction? For rejected scripts, the O’Neill staff makes a list of those having production potential available to industry professionals. For accepted scripts, the basic model is that the O’Neill provides living accommodations, professional directors and cast, all technical support, and rehearsal and performance space, thus freeing the playwright from any production concerns.
Development is an intensive process of rehearsals, which are open to the public, and rewrites, culminating in two script-in-hand public readings. Usually, when actors comment during rehearsals that the script keeps changing, they’re not being complimentary. At the O’Neill, frequent script and directorial changes are expected, and the cast is fully engaged in the process.
Playwright August Wilson is one of the O’Neill’s most famous participants. He submitted four scripts, during a period when he at times supported himself in a series of menial jobs, including one as a short-order cook, before being accepted. He went on to be one of the most successful O’Neill playwrights, developing six of his plays there. (Jacksonville theatergoers will have the opportunity to see Gem of the Ocean in November, at Players by the Sea). Other famous alumni include Lee Blessing, John Guare, Derek Walcott, and Wendy Wasserstein, with others too numerous to mention.
We saw two readings, both dramas. One other unique thing about the O’Neill’s process – no reviews by critics are allowed. So we will limit our comments to saying that we were impressed by the outstanding professional actors and technicians involved with the productions. We also took advantage of the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal for a third drama, and gain a firsthand appreciation of the intensity of the developmental process.
Paulette Haupt is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of the National Music Theatre Conference that was started in 1978. More than 100 new musical theatre works have been developed included such works as Avenue Q, Nine, and In the Heights. Of the three musicals that were produced during the summer session, we were privileged to see Eden. We can not review it, as it was also a reading, but we were again awed by the professionalism of the cast, who performed as if they had been rehearsing for weeks and weeks.
The National Puppetry Conference is headed by Artistic Director Pam Arciero and is held in June for 12 days. The emphasis is on creating new works for puppet arts. It was founded in 2002.
The Cabaret & Performances Conference was established in 2005, with a mission to redefine and revitalize the Cabaret art form. It runs from August 4-14.
The O’Neill is on a large estate that is bordered by a public park that goes right to the ocean. Tickets are available for all performances and this Summer Camp for Theater is a popular destination for theatre lovers from all over the country. A further attraction, owned and operated by the O’Neill is the Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home of Eugene O’Neill, in nearby New London.
To learn more about the O’Neill, and the many other programs they offer, visit www.theoneill.org.
The American Theatre Critics were the guests for one day at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut (about 30 minutes from either Hartford or New Haven). This truly remarkable theatre is located in a four-story building on the Connecticut River. The Opera House was built in 1876, and held its first production in 1877. Over the years it was a theater, professional offices, a general store and a steamboat terminal. Local preservationists saved the building from demolishment in 1958. Restored to its original splendor in 1963, the Goodspeed is now dedicated to the preservation and advancement of musical theatre.
We saw the musical Carnival by Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart, but since it was in previews, we are not allowed to review it. But we can comment on our over-all experience with the theatre, which was terrific. The building interior recalls the elegance of past days, with high ceilings, Victorian furnishings, and a bar and porch overlooking the river, and the production was polished and professional.
The Goodspeed has a staff of 100 full-time employees and hires 300 actors, directors, costume, set and lighting designers, with most of them coming from Broadway. They offer educational programs for theatrical professionals, produce six shows a year and reach an audience of 120,000 plus. To buy season subscriptions, patrons must make a financial donation of $50 or more.
Staging presents unique technical challenges. The theatre is on the fourth floor and has only eight feet of space in the wings. The stage is so small that all furniture is custom-made for the productions. Steel is used in place of wood to fabricate the sets, since the Goodspeed is right on the river, and wood tends to warp.
The Goodspeed also operates The Norma Terris Theatre in nearby Chester Connecticut and it is dedicated to development of new musicals. It has nurtured more than 55 musicals, with many going on to New York. Notable recent successes include All Shook Up, By Jeeves, Princesses and Summer of ’42 .
The Goodspeed campus has 23 buildings, including housing for visiting artists and technicians, rehearsal studios, an extensive musical theatre library, and two remarkably well-equipped workshops with over 40,000 square feet.
Next door to the theater is the wonderful Gelston House, a restaurant of fine dining in an old world atmosphere that goes right along with the Goodspeed.
We know that a number of theatre lovers make trips to New York to enjoy theatre. We suggest expanding your horizons to Connecticut, especially during the summer when you can enjoy this scenic state with its lovely rolling hills, quaint little towns, and unique theatres.
For more about the Godspeed, check out www.goodspeed.org .

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april, 2022

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