Tales From the O'Neill: Summer Traditions Kept Alive
By Sophia Saifi
The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center is an idyllic retreat where playwrights, actors and puppeteers flock to focus on their art. There isn't much Internet service, and cell phone reception is a thing of mythical wonder. This lack of interconnectivity has created a tightly-knit community where creativity thrives. Over the 49 years of its existence, The O'Neill has acquired some much-loved traditions that are kept alive by the center's dedicated staff.
Read on to learn about some of the annual traditions at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
Blue Gene's pub is the hub of all activity at The O'Neill. The evening doesn't start until after ten when the tiny watering hole begins filling up. Participants of the puppetry conference use the space as an excuse to show the more risqué side of their art form, and beautifully crafted marionettes belt out some hilariously bawdy one-liners. This year was the year of terrible jokes and worse puns emceed by the conference's acting advisor, Tyler Bunch. Besides the stand up routines, this is a time for performers to showcase some of their most bizarre work, from puppet cat romances to recitations of T.S Elliot's "The Wasteland." It's a great jumble of high and low culture. Most open mic nights end with a pilgrimage to Joe's food truck, which drives up to the O'Neill at midnight and has been serving hotdogs and burgers to hungry performers for the past five years.
Tea at Three with Judy Rose
It was marionette Jim Rose's idea to have a circle where participants of the National Puppetry conference could get to know each other in a space outside their workshops. Every day during the week-long conference, at exactly 3 PM, his wife, Judy Rose set out her array of teas, and puppeteers huddled around to chat over a steaming cup of apple spice.
The Roast is the finale of the open mic nights at the pub and is a 22-year-old tradition. Puppeteers are an eccentric bunch of talent; they can sing, dance, work puppets, act and be riotously entertaining all at the same time, due to their snarky wittiness that both scathes and entertains. When they turn this arsenal of wit towards each other, the results are fantastic. The script of the show is worked on from the very start of the conference, and the outcome is a mix of madness, wonder and all-around hilarity.
At the turn of the last century, the adolescent Eugene O'Neill would spend his summers in New London, CT. Most of the beaches in the area were private property, but O'Neill was especially fond of sneaking out to them with a lady in tow. His trespassing efforts were met with strict resistance, and the millionaire Edward Crowninshield Hammond would often bring out a shotgun to his beach to chase off the young playwright-to-be. Many years later O'Neill immortalized Hammond as the character of the "Standard Oil Millionaire" in Long Day's Journey into Night. In an ironic twist, the Hammond estate itself became what is now the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
In honor of O'Neill's endeavors, participants and staff of the conferences steal into the night after the final strike has finished and light an illicit bonfire on the on-campus beach. The event, which is called The Nonfire, is very secretive and has been a part of O'Neill tradition since its inception. The puppeteers took it to a new level this year, arriving bearing a three-foot long Viking ship that they had crafted throughout the week. With much ceremony, the ship was set on fire and pushed out into the sea, where it blazed and dazzled into the distance because of the sparklers someone had resourcefully placed onboard. There was beer, music and much revelry, and some lingered until 6 AM to watch the sun rise over the sea. To those on the outside it never happened, but year after year, the flaming tradition continues.
Bart Roccoberton Jr., the technical director of the National Puppetry Conference, has long links to the O'Neill, and one of his traditions is to host a barbeque on the last day of the puppetry conference. The barbeque has modest beginnings; eighteen years ago, at the end of the conference, a bunch of international participants had to stay a little longer at the O'Neill. It was a Sunday, so as a treat, Roccoberton decided to grill some burgers on the pub's porch. Fast forward to this year, when about one hundred hungry attendees descend onto the Blue Gene's garden to scarf down portobello mushrooms, hotdogs and Bart's famous pineapple slices. (He chops the fruit, slathers it with butter and then grills the wedges, which are served sprinkled with cinnamon.) Artistic director Pam Arciero, who has been involved with "Sesame Street" for many years, brought out her beloved character of Grundgetta and in a corner someone strummed a banjo. It was a truly rustic end to a wonderful week.
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