George White (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

George White on Theater on the Record

WHITE POINT — It was a blazingly hot day, but George White knew a breeze would find its way to the veranda of the big stone house that’s been in his family for generations. 

“The farmers didn’t value this place at all because you couldn’t grow anything here,” said White, surveying the view of Long Island Sound. “But my grandfather started to paint this area and got to know it and this rocky point of land. He knew he wanted it.”

White’s grandfather, the artist Henry C. White, was included among the painters of the Lyme Art Colony in Henry Rankin Poore’s The Fox Chase panel in the dining room at the Florence Griswold house in Old Lyme. Henry White lived in Hartford and at first came down only for the summer, before soon becoming a year-round resident. He built a small house on the property that was later moved to make way for the large house in 1913. 

“The original house is now near the tennis court. It was moved over there with oxen,” said White. He sat on a large curved wicker sofa in the shade, dressed in a pink polo shirt and chinos.

He said the stone for the house came from Millstone Quarry and the masons from Westerly. He and his wife, Betsy, had built a house elsewhere on the property, but moved into the larger house in 2002 after his mother, Aida, died at age 104.

“She was Italian and she spanned three centuries, born in 1897, died in 2002,” White said. “And my grandfather was very conscious of history. He lived from 1861 to 1952, he spanned from Lincoln to Eisenhower.” 

White’s grandfather, father and brother are well-known painters. George White founded the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford in 1964.

White said that as a young man, when he decided to study theater at Yale, his family was supportive. 

“My father went to Yale for a year before he went to art school and I just always wanted to go to Yale,” he said. “They allowed only three people a year in those days to major in theater. You had to sort of audition and if you were accepted into the program then you got a year’s credit toward your master’s degree,” he said. He got in.

After college he joined the Army where, by chance, he met Elvis Presley, the first of many actors and performers he would work with. 

“He was in the third army division, I was in the fourth army division. I was the lowest of the low, a private first class, one stripe, but I ended up doing a show with him up on the Czech border in 1958. Because we were all freezing to death, we cooked up this show,” White laughed. “Elvis Presley was an ammo driver and he said, ‘You’re in the theater, aren’t you, George?’ and I said I was, and he said, ‘Why don’t we put on a show and we can get out of guard duty?’” 

When he arrived stateside, White returned to Yale for his master’s, finishing in two years. It was there that he found his future role in theater. 

“We spent one summer in New York doing ‘John Brown’s Body.’ The drama school brought this production and I did 86 performances of that as an actor. By the time I got through I said, ‘This is not for me. I can’t stand to go into the dressing room one more time.’ I was so bored with this play.”

When he told his friend, the actress Dina Merrill, how he felt, she replied, “Oh, no, George, every night when I get to the theater and I go to my dressing room, it’s heaven.” 

“And I said, ‘That makes you an actor and it makes me a director,’” said White. 

Homegrown theater

After Yale, White worked in television at Talent Associates-Paramount, a production company led by David Susskind. His job was doing research in the story department. “We were doing a series called ‘East Side West Side’ with George C. Scott about a social worker,” said White.

Then just two and a half miles from White’s home, an unexpected opportunity cropped up on an old farm where he had played as a boy.

The town of Waterford had purchased the property for the beach, but didn’t know what to do with the buildings, said White. 

“It had an old mansion falling down and a wonderful old barn from about the 1840s and some outbuildings. And I thought, ‘Gee,’ because I knew the place and loved the property,” White said. “And I said to the Dean of the Yale Drama School, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a summer adjunct to the Yale Drama School? Students could run summer stock here. It would be a great way to do it, plus the fact that Eugene O’Neill grew up in New London in the summers — it’s a no-brainer.”

The project was presented to Yale, but at the eleventh hour the college turned it down, said White. 

“And by then the press had gotten a hold of it and they loved the idea of a theater with a beach park and they said what are you going to do?” White said. “And, dummy here, I said to cover myself, ‘We’re going to do something even more, we’re going to make it an American theater center.’” 

F. Curtis Canfield, dean of the Yale School of Drama, asked what he could do to help.

White asked if Canfield would talk with Eugene O’Neill’s wife to ask permission to name the center after her husband.

“And that was the linchpin. Once I got that name, I didn’t realize just exactly how good that was, but it was incredible,” said White. “Because it was not just some little performing arts center. ‘Where?’ ‘Waterford, Connecticut?’ Suddenly it had the name Eugene O’Neill. And that did it.” 

White said the New York Times picked up the story because Arthur Gelb, editor of the New York Times, and his wife Barbara had written a biography of Eugene O’Neill and had spent time in New London. 

Even with the excitement and press, White said that it wasn’t easy to raise the money for the theater and he was forced to mortgage his house in New York.

“And boy that makes you learn, you learn!” he said. “And I had two other people who put their name on the note, too. But that was it, so I learned how to fundraise.”

In 1965, White said he cashed in a life insurance policy for $1,200 and invited a bunch of playwrights up to the center for the first time. 

“I got local people to give us bed and breakfasts for the playwrights and they gave a caterer who would come and do lunch. It was funny — again I had to learn all this — the first lunches were terrific and then the caterer began to run out of money. What started as roast beef descended into American chop suey.” 

It was 1965 and the national atmosphere and the playwrights were, in White’s words, “very contentious.” 

“It was just the beginning of Vietnam and ‘never trust anybody over 30’ and these playwrights did not have a place to get their plays on anywhere,” said White. 

White was able to fly Edward Albee, and his producer, Richard Barr, over from Montauk to meet with the playwrights. 

“They were kind of an ameliorating influence on all these crazy playwrights who were angry because they couldn’t get their plays on,” said White. “Albee had just done ‘Virginia Woolf.’ He was there as a symbol of a person who could make it and he had made it and his message was ‘keep at it.’” 

“There were only two or three regional theaters back then. There was the Nina Vance Alley Theatre in Houston, the Arena Theater in D.C. with Zelda Fichlander, Sir Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis, and that was about it,” White said. “It was very sparse. It was all at the very, very beginning and we didn’t know we were riding a movement, I was just trying to do these things,” he said.

Coffeehouses in New York, like La MaMa and Cafe Cino, were doing plays, said White. “But it was very rudimentary and very tough and God knows nobody made any money off of these plays and, p.s., the plays were not very good.” 

Breaking international ground

In 1967, White accepted the center’s first big grant — $500,000 for three years — from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Soon after, he was able to meet Derek Walcott in Trinidad and to bring him to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center to talk to American playwrights.

“Derek was wonderful and so we brought his theater company and dumped them right into the middle of all the American playwrights and it was a great leavening influence,” White said. 

By this time, the O’Neill was becoming well known, which White said had its advantages and disadvantages. 

“We had people coming up, almost too much so, because limos were coming up from Shuberts, disgorging producers who wanted to get tomorrow’s hits, which was very dangerous because on the one hand playwrights wanted to have their works seen, but at the same time they wanted a place where they could work out and fail if they needed to, so it was very dicey,” said White. “More and more New Yorkers began to glom onto the O’Neill.”

Later White worked to meet Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, who had written notes for a new play in coffee grounds while in prison.

“We bribed his people through the Swedish embassy to get the notes out and he was eventually released. We brought him and his company from Nigeria when the Bronx was burning and we toured Bedford Stuyvesant with his company.” 

“Wait for me”

In 1973, White was asked to be a delegate in the World Theatre Congress in Russia. The first visit was in the depth of the Cold War. “It was fascinating, but it was dreary. I spent a lot of time in these conferences with these translators.” 

White wasn’t eager to return, but in 1980 he received a call from a Soviet literary agency, asking to bring Russian plays to the O’Neill Theater. “‘And we’d like you to see our theater and be our guest, if you can get yourself to Russia,’ they said,” he said. “I didn’t want to go, but they kept it up.” 

President Carter had cut cultural ties with Russia in 1979. “I desperately disagreed with it because when you do that, all you do is disenfranchise your friends, and your enemies don’t like you anyway so you accomplish nothing.”

White eventually went back.

“This time the trip was run by the KGB so everything was open and I was able to go to everything, to people’s houses. We made a lot of friends,” he said. “Until Reagan, we were the only cultural link between Russia and the U.S. We started bringing American plays and actors and musicals to St. Petersburg and plays to Moscow and that was great.” 

In 1980, White traveled to China to do a survey of theaters and in 1984 directed Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” in Chinese, followed by a production of “The Music Man.”

Of all the places he’s traveled — including Australia, China and Brazil — Russia stands out. 

“Theatrically I love Russia. I love the people, they’re exactly like us,” he said. “You go to Russia and once you get into the theater, you’re on the same page — they’re delightful and fun and drunken and a mess, very much like the dark Irish, so I’ve always enjoyed them.” 

White offered a anecdote about a cab driver in Moscow to illustrate why he loves the spirit of the Russian people. 

“It’s a famous poem written by a Soviet soldier in World War II to his wife,” White said, as he recited several lines in Russian and then translated, “Wait for me and I will come — it means, if you wait for me hard enough, I will come back.”

In Moscow, White said that he had reached his destination. He exited the cab and said to the driver, in Russian, “Wait for me” and the cab driver immediately responded with a few lines of the poem.

“Those are the kinds of things that endear you to the people,” said White.

“The Russians truly believe that, even though they are so-called atheists, that artists are touched by god. They really believe that.” 

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