The O’Neill: On the Cutting Room Floor
A conversation with Preston Whiteway (O’Neill Executive Director), Jeffrey Sweet (author + playwright + alumnus), and Skip Mercier (designer + exhibit curator)
Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 6pm
Bruno Walter Auditorium @ the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, 111 Amsterdam Avenue

(L-R) Skip Mercier, Preston Whiteway, Jeffrey Sweet. Image by Martha Wade Steketee
(L-R) Skip Mercier, Preston Whiteway (holding copy of “The O’Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater”), Jeffrey Sweet. Image by Martha Wade Steketee
  • “It’s not teaching, it’s listening. As you listen, you learn to nurture, not necessarily to lead.” (Skip Mercier on teaching design at the O’Neill National Theater Institute)

The O’Neill, a “safe place by the sea to work on projects that need support at an early stage,” as one participant described it, is celebrating half a century of nurturing those projects and bearing witness to theatre works (and theatre lives) in evolution. In the fourth public program sponsored by the New Your Public Library for the Performing Arts associated with an exhibit across the hall honoring the 50-year history of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, three theatre professionals with long associations with the O’Neill muse about history, funny stories from a recently published history, elements of the temporary exhibit, and images and stories that ended up on the “cutting room floor.”

This evening of reminiscences and images and promotion of the new Jeffrey Sweet-authored history of the O’Neill is moderated by Preston Whiteway (current Executive Director) and animated by Skip Mercier (long time summer session resident director and current design master teacher at the National Theater Institute during the non-summer months), and Jeffrey Sweet (playwright, alum of the O’Neill National Critics Institute, veteran attendeed, and author of the new O’Neill history).

Second City and the O’Neill Theater Center

Sweet wrote a 2004 history of Second City, the Chicago-based trendsetting improvisation group, as well as the 2014 O’Neill Center history. He noted that a theme that linked the two: both invented developmental programs that didn’t exist before for two distinct art forms — improvisation for Second City and playwriting for the O’Neill. In additional Sweet added that a bonus for him as an author and historian on both projects was that “cool people” were part of both histories so he was able to meet and to talk with a lot of fascinating characters.


Whiteway and Sweet shared stories about the O’Neill founder George C. White who grew up in the Waterford Connecticut area, attended Yale School of Drama, and put together an aging estate property and the idea of summer repertory into what became a world renown play development center. The men reflected that George, a sailor, “tacked to the wind” as the Center’s leader and followed what he perceived was needed (a place for playwrights to develop their craft) rather than a more traditional repertory company with fully realized productions he thought he was going to create when it all began in the early 1960s.

Exhibit and History

O’Neill veteran now master teacher Skip Mercier was the curator of the current museum exhibit on the O’Neill’s first 50 years. He credited Andre Bishop with the idea for the exhibit, contacting set designer Skip to translate the O’Neill history into a visual experience. The resulting exhibit is a bit of a collage by design, touching on the multiple elements and stages and components of the O’Neill enterprise — playwrights and critics and puppeteers and cabaret artists all share the campus at different times during the summer with undergraduate students in the National Theater Institute who are on campus all year long. In the year he worked on assembling the exhibit, Mercier assembled long quotes from past participants intended to be part of a quote wall. The hardest part for him — what contributed to his elements on the “cutting room floor” — was editing down what were sometimes paragraphs of memories into succinct sentiments.

Conversations and Design Meetings

The process of designing theatrical productions usually is led by the director — from meetings with designers long before rehearsal begin through the rehearsal process. Designers, dramaturgs and actors are conventionally instructed to communicate with each other and with the playwright through the director. Communications directly with playwrights, and from designers to playwrights, is conventionally not encouraged. Mercier reflected about his history with the Center and the creation of the famous O’Neill “dream design meeting” that effectively turns this conventional relationship on its head. Each summer’s playwright in the National Playwrights Conference, prior to the beginning of rehearsals, is invited to a conversation led by designers who discuss with the playwright the possible physical worlds they envision for the play script they have read. Directors and dramaturgs (who together lead other O’Neill processes) are not invited to speak at these meetings.

The inspiration for these convocations came from Lloyd Richards — the artistic director of the Playwrights Conference from 1968 through 1999 — who invited Skip to the O’Neill in the early years to help playwrights connect visually with their creations during this early development stage. At the first design meetings, Mercier recalled, the director and dramaturg did all the talking. Mercier went to Richards and asked for him to “tell them to shut up,” and was given the go-ahead to modify the format. As the “dream design meeting” developed, the process was and is today led by designers who ask the playwright questions, allowing them to describe the world of the play in their imagination. The designers on staff develop sketches and research to inform the play’s world for the playwright for future productions. Design elements at the O’Neill are kept to the bare minimum to retain focus on the text, so these are tools for future built sets, yet also assist in developing the words on the page. The meetings illuminate the worlds of the plays for the playwrights and the directors and dramaturgs alike, and the sketches and materials are on display during the few public performances of the plays at the end of their O’Neill development period.

Mercier described the design description evolution of August Wilson at the O’Neill. In early stages of the summer Wilson was working on The Piano Lesson, Mercier recalled, Mercier could glean little of the physical world from the Wilson’s extant script. As a result, he delivered to Wilson one morning a simple sketch of two items clearly mentioned in the script at that point: a watermelon and  a paino. He quoted himself saying to Wilson when he delivered this sketch as the best he could do at that point: “If you don’t see anything, I can’t see it. You have to start seeing the world for me to see the world.” Wilson kept that sketch in this study, he later told Mercier, to remind him to describe his play’s world, and they indeed worked to evoke a powerful world beyond those two elements as the play evolved that summer.

At the O’Neill, all the parts work together to support each playwright’s vision, many elements of which are captured in the history authored by Sweet. And the history is remade anew year round and especially each summer on the O’Neill campus in Waterford, Connecticut.

Slide from the presentation. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Edith Oliver, dramaturg and critic, and playwright August Wilson. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Image from the presentation. Image by Martha Wade Steketee
Dream Design meeting on the porch of the O’Neill campus Farmhouse. Image by Martha Wade Steketee
Slide from the presentation -- Dream Design sketch for John Guare's House of Blue Leaves. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Dream Design sketch for John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves”. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Dream Design sketch for Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Dream Design sketch for Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods”. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Dream Design sketch for August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Dream Design sketch for August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”, developed once Wilson conveyed to designer Mercier more than a watermelon and a piano. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 11, 2014)

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