Design At "The O’Neill"? Yes, Indeed!

Designing sets for staged readings at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT

September 9, 2010

George White, founder of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, said of its first efforts to mount new plays in 1968, “While it was found possible to have actors ‘off book’ [approximating the playwrights’ words], 125 light cues, and elaborate sets all in three days, the loser was the playwright, and the text.” And, so, they devised a different approach.

There, on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound, the National Playwrights Conference just wrapped up its 40th season of giving playwrights a new way to polish their works in progress with public readings in two spaces in the Rufus and Margo Rose Theatre Barn.

The concept of staged readings has spread far and wide. Today, a staged reading often involves the cast standing in front of music stands or holding scripts in three-ring binders on an otherwise bare stage. 

Who would think that, through all those years in the barn where the practice began, there has been a “resident designer” brought in each summer and that, indeed, in spite of no apparent design for the readings, design remains a feature of the play development process that is uniquely “O’Neillian”?

The current “resident designer” is a transplanted Californian now based exclusively in New York, Rachel Hauck. Since 2005, she’s held the post first filled by Fred Voepel and later G. W. “Skip” Mercier. 

What these three designers have in common is that they each went to the O’Neill each summer to “listen.” 

Explains Hauck: “Designers listen to plays differently than do others. We listen for different things. It’s useful for writers to discuss those things.” Hauk believes it is the job of the entire design team to help the playwrights by talking them through all the problems and opportunities that a designer’s particular kind of listening reveals.

Each summer, the O’Neill has a full team of six designers. This season, the usual costume designer, Anne Kennedy, was absent, but the theatre still had two lighting designers, Raquel Davis and Brian J. Lilienthal, and three sound designers, Matthew Hubbs, Elisheba Ittoop, and Ben Inniger. They all participate in what Hauck termed the “dream design” session. “We all gather: the playwright, dramaturg, and designers, plus the director, but he’s (or she’s) not allowed to say a word. The purpose isn’t really to come up with one design but to surface the design issues that the playwright should think through.” And, she adds, “We don’t actually have to solve the problems we discover in the play; that’s for the playwright to do.”

The team also provides the results of research playwrights can take with them when they leave the O’Neill. Some of that is visual—the architecture, clothing, and common items from the play’s time period, for example. Other research involves the music the play may need. Hauck points to this year’s play Follow Me To Nellie’s. “A jukebox was an important part of Dominique Morisseau’s play, but she’d never actually heard the music the script called for. Research showed that three of the songs had actually been written after the date of the play.”

This season was the third for Adam Flemming, who served as assistant scenic designer. Flemming, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts before setting up his own LA-based design studio, provides a different service for the playwrights. He sits in on the dream design meeting but, he says, “I’m usually quiet during the sessions. Rachel invites me to participate, but it works best for her to engage in the dialogue with the playwright.”

What Flemming does is take all the discussion of design issues and create renderings of a design. “It is his design, not mine,” says Hauck. The renderings are posted for the audiences to view when they attend the readings of the plays in one of the two theaters in the O’Neill’s converted barn. This gives the audience a chance to have an idea what the play they are listening to might look like. The renderings are displayed along with some of the research into the place or period of the play.

Flemming’s renderings for Close Up Space by Molly Smith Metzler included a bit of an in-joke among the creative team. Since the play concerns an editor who is used to taking a red pencil to the drafts crossing his desk, but who discovers he can’t fix everything in his life with his red pencil, Flemming scribbled notes across his renderings in red ink. There had been discussion between the designers and the playwright over whether or not the fluorescent lights, which would have been a feature of the set, would be visible at the end of the play. Among Flemming’s scribbles were Xs over the fluorescent lights with the circled message “lose the lights!”

“I love being the first set of eyes through which the playwrights can see how their passion might end up looking in the concrete world,” says Flemming. He delivers a full digital set of renderings on a disc when the season is over so all the playwrights can have copies.