Exec to begin plans on playwriting conference

NEW HAVEN — The O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., has named one of its founding members to be its first resident artistic director.

Director, writer and teacher J Ranelli will immediately begin to plan for the summer’s playwriting conference, which was in the planning stages when its director, James Houghton, quit last month over a dispute with the center’s direction and finances.

Ranelli was a student at Wesleyan U. in Middletown, Conn., in 1964 when he joined a small group of theater artists, led by George C. White, to establish the O’Neill as a center for theater development.

Wide brief

The O’Neill subsequently became the home of summertime conferences for playwriting, music theater, critics and puppetry as well as the base for the National Theater Institute, an undergraduate program. The center also oversees the Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home in New London, Conn., of playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Since its beginning, the center was run by White, with separate artistic directors for various programs.

White resigned in 1999 and was succeeded by Howard Sherman as executive director. Houghton, who runs Off Broadway’s Signature Theater, was tapped to run the playwrights conference, succeeding Lloyd Richards, who had headed the program since 1968. Houghton was based in New York.

This past summer, Sherman resigned to pursue producing interests and this month became executive director of the American Theater Wing. Houghton quit when financing forced its just-hired executive director Amy Sullivan to fast-track long-term plans to have a single artistic director oversee all the center’s artistic programs.

Management team

Ranelli, Sullivan, David B. Jaffe (head of the NTI) and board chairman Tom Viertel will focus on the overall operations of the center and on fund-raising.

The center has reduced its debt from $1.2 million to $700,000 over the last few years, but an unexpected $250,000 shortfall in its current operating budget created a financial crisis for the O’Neill this fall.

The O’Neill’s financial fortunes caused the cutback of the playwright conference from four to three weeks and the closing of the Monte Cristo Cottage this summer.

“Both Amy and Tom feel, as I do, that the O’Neill center is perhaps the world’s most distinguished research theater,” Ranelli said, “and that a renewal of the collaborative spirit that shaped the center’s various projects is an appropriate way to ensure its future.”

Ranelli, 65, has directed for numerous regional and laboratory theaters including the Actors Studio; the Cleveland Playhouse; Baltimore’s Center Stage; Long Wharf Theater; and Hartford Stage, where his 1980 production of “Einstein and the Polar Bear” later went to Broadway. He also staged “Herzl” on Broadway.

He has taught at Carnegie Mellon U., the Juilliard School, Stamford U. and Wesleyan, among others. He currently teaches at Connecticut College in New London and at Manhattanville College.

Ranelli lives with his wife, actress Jeanne Ruskin, in New York and Old Lyme, Conn.

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