Everybody has to start somewhere, and for many bold-faced names, that place was the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Set beach-adjacent in Waterford, Conn., the theater — named in honor of the playwright whose family home, Monte Cristo Cottage, is not far away — hosts actors, writers, directors, musicians, puppeteers, and more each summer to focus on the development of new theatrical works.
In honor of this milestone, many of its notable alumni — whether they performed in workshops, studied at the National Theater Institute, or maintained the facilities — share memories from their summers by the sea.
Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
Founded by George C. White in 1964, the center celebrates the 50th anniversary of its National Playwrights Conference this summer. Since its inception, the center has also birthed the National Music Theatre Conference, National Puppetry Conference, Cabaret and Performance Conference and National Critics Institute. In addition to hosting more than 200 working professionals each summer, the O’Neill also boasts a theater training program, aptly named the National Theater Institute (NTI), which has trained actors like John Krasinski, Josh Radnor, Jennifer Garner and more.
On the National Playwrights Conference in 1975: "That summer, the process was so condensed that I learned a sort of invaluable swiftness of decision-making, out of necessity. The 'choices' could not be labored over, and that, for certain types of thinking actors, is a gift of exigency. You had to, like your fifth-grade teacher said, in multiple-choice questions, just go with your first instinct, don't worry to death. That's what actors did at the O'Neill and with full-blown commitment. Like jumping off a platform onto the swinging trapeze."
"Don't hesitate. It's a good lesson. One I've carried with me my whole life."
On the National Theater Institute in fall 2001: "I experienced things and grew in ways I never expected. It’s really plain and simple. … Without the 14 weeks I spent at NTI, there’s no way I would be an actor. None."
"In 1966, I arrived at a brand-new theater on the shore of Connecticut as an intern, responsible for lawn mowing and facilities maintenance. In between carving out a new amphitheater next to an old barn, I began working with the incredible playwrights, directors, and actors who were also spending their summer at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, with work so inspiring that I spent the next two summers there too. … Danny DeVito and I met there as teenagers, and there are a few stories around the trouble we got into. … I would not be who or where I am today without the O'Neill. It is a magical place, one of the most important influences on my life and career, and why I've served on the O'Neill's board of trustees since 1980."
On the National Playwrights Conference (1981, 1982, 1984, 1985 and 1986): "For more reasons than I can say, the O’Neill was truly one of the most stimulating, satisfying and rewarding experiences I have ever had."
Jesse Tyler Ferguson
On the National Playwrights Conference in 2002: "I was at the O'Neill in 2002 doing a play by Rob Handel called Millicent Scowlworthy. I just remember how inspired I was by the company I was keeping. There were so many talented actors in my play and in the other plays at the festival. It was so exciting to work on a new play in the safe bubble that the O'Neill provided. It gave me such respect for the rehearsal room. I try to duplicate that same sense of reckless play with every rehearsal process."
Jesse Tyler Ferguson
"The entire summer company stayed in college dorms where there was no air conditioning — just small fans in the windows to cool the tiny rooms with the single-bed cots. I remember running into Daphne Rubin-Vega in the bathroom with my shower caddy. We both had the brilliant idea to take a cold shower to stay cool. I don't remember if the bathroom situation was co-ed but no one cared at that point. It was hot and there were showers available. I also remember raiding the commissary fridge with Susan Pourfar and Rhea Seehorn early one morning before breakfast. We got up early before the meal was ready and we were starving. I swear we only took a few hard-boiled eggs."
On the National Playwrights Conference in 1977: "There’s no place in the theater like the O’Neill — no place in the world. As an actor, the opportunity to join a company of artists, and immerse myself in the creative process, wholly supporting the writer as she wrestles with a new play, is an unbridled joy. In New York, in Los Angeles, this business too often centers on competition. At the O’Neill — on that beautiful beach in Connecticut — all of us, playwrights, directors, interns, students, and actors are one family. Fulfilled as artists in ways that we so rarely are — our lungs fill with the sea air, and in the rehearsal room, our souls recharge with the reasons we got into theater in the first place."
On the National Theater Institute in spring 1995: "Before NTI, theater was my mistress, and it was like hot and secret and always at night; after I got to NTI, theater became my wife. And it was a deeper commitment, maybe a little less sexy, but it was a deeper, stronger commitment. It became: 'This is my life. This is who I am and this is what I do.' And I think because of that, I went back to my senior year and did a year of plays that I felt like I was doing professional work in a college environment, like my game was so raised by being at NTI and it was noticeable."
On being a National Theater Institute teacher and board of trustees member: "The theater in the last 30 or 40 years, it’s become an industry. You accept kids into acting schools, at which they’re going to pay 45 or 60 thousand dollars a year. It’s another thing if they get a liberal arts education, it’s another thing if they’re studying theater. … At the same time, working with students, I get nervous because I don’t want to say something discouraging. A 19-year-old will say, 'I want to be an actor and that’s it,' but when you get tired of serving drinks or selling real estate, you might rethink your priorities. I was one of those people who didn’t have a choice, and in a way, those are really the only people who hang in [there]. The Institute needs to exist. It needs to thrive."
On the National Music Theater Conference in 1997: "I arrived directly after the closing of Steel Pier on Broadway. I was there for Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. It was an amazing experience; one of the most special times in my young career. … One day we started rehearsals, and then I took a walk on the beach at a break. I instantly fell in love. Every morning, I woke up and went to the beach, then I would go into rehearsal and learn more music. As the middle of the week came, I came to look forward to mealtime with the casts of all the shows there."