DANVILLE -- Seventy years after the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill departed Tao House, having written three plays that indelibly transformed American theater, the sounds of original, American voices are ringing anew in the historic home's hallways.
The annual, weeklong O'Neill Studio Retreat last week brought together nine playwrights and 15 actors, all high school students from San Ramon, Concord, Walnut Creek, Martinez, Simi Valley and Oakland, to the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.
Sponsored by the Eugene O'Neill Foundation and supported by the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation and the Wood Foundation, the retreat is free for juniors, seniors and just-graduated high school students. Working in the location that inspired O'Neill's final plays ("The Iceman Cometh," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and "A Moon for the Misbegotten"), budding playwrights craft 10-minute, original scripts in less than 48 hours. Retreat leaders, all professionals, coach rewrites that coincide with rehearsals with a troupe of young actors. At the retreat's end, a public performance displays the results of their intensely collaborative experience.
Coordinator Jack DeRieux, a retired Northgate High School drama teacher, says the program began in 2008, spanning just two days and with only four students. This year, DeRieux says they tried to take all who applied, turning away only writers whose work samples showed they weren't ready for the hard-charging environment. "We look for maturity and creativity," DeRieux says, during a tour to observe the students in action.
Wrapping up the morning session, playwright Ignacio Zulueta has the writers working on rewrites and artists' statements. He's zooming in on their expressivity; charging them to write a monologue restricted to all one-syllable words. "The rhythm it gives is poetic and changes the work," Zulueta says.
In his third season leading the workshop, he's directed only the setting for their scripts -- each student has pulled the name of a room in O'Neill's house out of a hat. The domestic setting invites them to address themes common in O'Neill's work -- nature, despair, substance abuse -- without copying the master playwright. "It forces them to not rewrite O'Neill. We don't want a Twitter version of 'The Emperor Jones,' " Zulueta says.
In the nearby barn, stage director/educator Chad Deverman has Sean Woodring, of Mount Diablo High School, in the spotlight -- coughing. "Oh! I miffed it!" Woodring says, before being sent outside by Deverman to run 75 yards and return, coughing in character. Three runs later, he's nailed it and Deverman says, "Here's the secret to performing: We've done our homework, now we forget about it. We work on instinct." Woodring vows to "run every time" and the students head off to lunch at a communal table with Mount Diablo as a backdrop.
Deverman believes most people can be great actors. Identifying a character's desire, deciding to beg, intimidate or love one's way through a play's central conflict and selecting realistic actions are the three elements he emphasizes.
"They come here thinking they have to put on a show. All they need is connection," he says, "once you tell them that, they come a long way." He says "getting them out of their bodies" -- like Woodring's mad dash -- helps them get into a scene. Creating a safe environment reduces self-consciousness. "I'm tempted to call it shared embarrassment," he says, laughing.
Learning mingled with laughter is a good way to describe the atmosphere at the retreat. In the Tao House, John Litten coaches a group of actors with "genre switching." An exercise in which they read a script while Litten shouts out "funeral," "French film," "musical," "sci-fi," or simply, "big, loud, fast," their nimble switches of accent, pace and choreography prompt fellow students to giggle, then applaud with respect.
Lauren Smith, 17, says her first retreat has revealed a key component for creating believable characters: wording. "When the actor reads a sentence and it doesn't sound like real talking, the problem is wording," she says. Enjoying the speed of script writing, she's learned flexibility and how to use action instead of description to convey a character's inner thoughts.
Natalie Rich's "Old Writ," a story that originally had the main character dying at the end, has taken on a folklorish patina. "The man's origins are supernatural," the 16-year-old Las Lomas student says. "Hearing the actors helped me delve into character. They brought a lightness to the opening I'd not imagined: It brings it to a stronger, darker side at the climax."
Dominic Gulley, 19, is loving his fourth and final time at the retreat. Graduating from Skyline, he's headed for the Coast Guard and grateful for the supportive environment. "It's intense, professional, with all the details, but it's the nurturing that makes it happen," he says.
Mount Diablo High School student Victor Meneses, 15, says one script made him hesitate. "I honestly didn't want to continue: It was so emotional, I was on the verge of tears."
With noncompetitive feedback from his peers and a deeper understanding of acting not being "flashy things," Menses says he's learned to take risks, not just on stage, but in life. "I was the person who never speaks in class. I had only two friends. I've made friends here, learned to socialize, to do something to express myself, instead of bottling up."
And then, in words a theater educator would swoon over, he says, "I learned that all art is a piece of someone; it's not there just to be pretty or call attention to itself."
For more on the program, visit http://www.eugeneoneill.org.