@ONeill_Center #Writer’s Heaven for #Musical #Theater

As I write this I am in rehearsal at the Eugene O’Neill Center, home of the National Music Theater Conference.

The “conferences” here began life much like we would recognize as an industry conference—America’s great playwrights would gather to discuss the current state of theater. Over time, though, they realized that their greatest need was an opportunity for a safe place to work on refining their plays before they were seen on stage by the public. Over years, the conference grew to include not just playwrights, but musicals, puppetry, cabaret performance and more.

I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Our welcome packet talked about near-non-existent cell and internet reception, and shared bathrooms, so I half expected to find myself roughing it at a campground. Instead, what I found was a little piece of New England heaven.

What they call “the campus” is actually public land right along the coastline, including a manicured meadow, thickly wooded patches, and a beach. On this land is a cluster of antique buildings—towering Victorian houses, a barn, a log cabin—all converted into theaters, rehearsal spaces and offices.

All summer long, this place is inhabited by a changing spectrum of writers, directors and actors, and an army of enthusiastic interns. And the sole purpose is to serve writers in creating amazing theater.

We started with a “meet and greet”, open to the whole O’Neill community, where the cast, writers (composer Scott Murphy and me), director (Joe Calarco), music director (Kenneth Gartman), and administrative staff gathered around a ring of tables. After introductions and some orientation for first-timers, we had the cast read through the entire script, simply reading the lyrics instead of trying to fit in the music.

Even just that first read-through was a delight for me. As a writer, I spend a whole lot of time (years, in some cases) laboring away at my computer, for an art form that is not complete on the page. It is entirely dependent on having a team of talented people to work with. So just hearing the words out loud instead of in my head, is like bringing my characters to life.

That was Tuesday morning. Now it’s Thursday afternoon, and the intervening time has been spent learning the music (which is no small feat!), and working through the dialogue scenes one at a time to help the actors understand their characters.

It’s been amazing to see it start to come to life. I love to see the process of actors first seeing only the notes and words of a song, then discovering how it works as a whole, and then owning it and giving it a real performance. Then there’s a second round of delight when scenes start being put together, and the cast starts getting to hear the other actors’ scenes and music for the first time.

This afternoon, we have started from the beginning, and are slowly working our way through the first third of the show. Because this is going to be what’s called a “reading,” there will be no costumes, sets or lighting, and the actors will hold their scripts in their hands. But Joe, our director, is doing an amazing job of working within those constraints, moving the characters around the space so that it’s effortless to imagine what it would look like in full production.

Our time here at the O’Neill is not even half-way done, but the experience so far has been nothing but glorious.

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