In the world of theater, growth equals success, says Michael O’Neill, associate professor of English and director of theater. That’s why he is always looking for new ways to stretch his boundaries as a playwright and director.
O’Neill’s newest play, “Seven Around the Square,” got its start in 2005, when he discovered a number of short plays originally produced prior to World War I by a group called the Provincetown Players. At the time, he was the Eugene O’Neill Foundation’s visiting artist in residence at Tao House. He assembled five of the plays and directed them at Lafayette in 2008 for a production entitled “Provincetown Players Five.”
“These short plays fascinated me from the perspectives of both a playwright and a director,” he says. “How were they written? Could they work now? What did they say then? Are they of interest as more than mere historical artifacts?”
O’Neill rewrote portions of the project and researched additional short plays to come up with his newest production, “Seven Around the Square,” set in and around New York City’s Washington Square in 1917 and 1918. It includes adaptations of short plays by Floyd Dell, George Cram Cook, Joe Pendleton, Alice Rostetter, John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, and Susan Glaspell. O’Neill reworked each play to fit with the others and to make all seven suited for a racially diverse cast.
This summer, O’Neill debuted “Seven Around the Square” via a public reading at The Royal Theater at The Producers’ Club in New York City with the help of some very familiar faces. Psychology and English graduate Kelly Hess ’08 was stage manager. Actors included music and theater double major Brandi Porter ’13 (Olney, Md.), English graduate Brett Billings ’12, religious studies and government & law graduate Nathaniel Costa ’11, English graduate Keara McCarthy ’10, psychology graduate Dana Pardini ’12, economics graduate Dwayne Alistair Thomas ’01, and history graduate Conner James Woods ’11.
The process of assembling and auditioning actors, rehearsing them for performance, and hearing the play performed for an audience is invaluable in fine-tuning the finished piece. The actors in a public reading aren’t just mouthpieces for the playwright’s words; they provide feedback that can strengthen the work.
“At some point, a play needs to be heard,” explains O’Neill. “Good actors can tell what needs to be developed or clarified, and they usually know if what’s on the page can be realized by an actor.”
Members of the ensemble not affiliated with the College were impressed with the caliber of the Lafayette participants, which comes as no surprise to O’Neill.
“I know that our best theater students and theater alumni are just as talented—and a whole lot smarter—than any actor who is working professionally these days,” he says. “I work very closely with our students and think the world of them, so of course, I keep up with them after graduation. Writing is a very personal activity; it’s comforting to have actors I know and trust reading my work.”