Before her three Oscars and 18 nominations, before her Emmys, medals, honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards, even before her first New York job as an actor, Meryl Streep spent a summer at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
It was 1975, she was 26 and had just completed her three-year graduate program at the Yale School of Drama. But instead of bee-lining it to New York or Los Angeles, Streep headed to the O'Neill — which was just 11 summers old — and was already a hive of theatrical creativity.
The O'Neill in celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and is honoring Streep, 64, with its 14th annual Monte Cristo Award on Monday, April 21, at a gala fundraising event in New York. The award will be presented by actor-director Joe Grifasi, a longtime friend of Streep's and a fellow O'Neill artist and classmate. Among those expected to attend are Michael Douglas, Tony and Oscar-winning composer Robert Lopez, playwright John Patrick Shanley, Judith Light and fellow Yale Rep alum Alvin Epstein and Carmen de Lavallade.
"Besides a lot of fun and meeting people outside of the closed circle of the drama school, [The O'Neill] was sort of a launch," she said in a recent telephone interview. "It was really was my first job out of school. It wasn't a real job-job but it was a continuum to the approach we had at the drama school — which was that of a place devoted to the writer and everything circled around that sun."
The event-filled conference where a group of plays are developed and staged over a few weeks with professional actors was a place — and pace — in which Streep thrived.
"At the O'Neill you didn't have time [for research and deep analysis]. You had five seconds to make a decision so you make your best choice. Like my mother said about the S.A.T.'s, she said, 'Don't over-think yourself. Think what you think is right the first time and don't go back and worry about it.' At the O'Neill there was no time for doubts. There was no time for sunscreen. There wasn't any time for anything but the work."
That intense process is not for every actor, she cautions. ""People work in different ways and for some this way would be absolutely anathema and horrible, but for me, I loved it and still like that way of working."
Among the five plays she performed at the O'Neill ("It truly is sui generis") were John Guare's "Marco Polo Sings a Solo," Marsha Sheiness' "The Spelling Bee" and Jeff Wanshel's "Isadora Duncan Sleeps With the Russian Navy."
Starting Out Today
Streep is hesitant to map out any training routes for those entering the acting profession today, especially with the multitude of training choices now offered at universities, colleges and academies across the country.
"It's like the master writing programs that have just proliferated," she says. "I think the colleges and universities and other prepatory acting programs are just responding to a demand. Certainly there are more places to put your talent right now, more opportunities to work. When I graduated from Yale, there were 16 theaters boarded up on Broadway."
It was a different era when she first thought about being an actor.
"I think I was the only person in my high school who thought, 'Oh, maybe it would be fun to be an actor — but not really. Not really. I could never really be an actor.' But I don't remember any of my friends in high school to whom that occurred. My children come from a different generation. Everybody wants to be an actor.
She and her sculptor husband Donald Gummer have four children, now all adults, and who are actors and in the arts: Henry, Mamie, Grace and Louisa.
"What I advised them would fill several volumes," she says. "People want to do what they want to do. [My husband and I] always thought, well, maybe we'll get a molecular biologist out of them, but that just wasn't going to happen with [their parents'] DNA. So we have artists.
"I just told them — not that they listen — I told them the same thing I tell any young actor: Find out what kind of actor you want to be. There are a million different ways to enter this profession and show biz is a pretty big tent. There are a lot of different kinds of actors, so educate yourself for the kind you want to be — or don't. There are entertainers, there are imagineers, there are all different ways.
"My own bias is to educate yourself in everything but acting. Learn about the world. Learn about everything else. Learn about the human condition. That's the kind of actor I wanted to be. I'm curious about everything and everybody and not to limit myself with a certain kind of acting. I wanted to understand what made people, all kinds of people, not just those from New Jersey. (Streep grew up in Summit, N.J.)
Returning To Yale
Recently, Streep met privately with students from the Yale School of Drama. When asked about the discussion with the next generation of actors she said most of the questions had to do "with the meat and potatoes kinds of things. But I had to be honest and I said I don't know how you begin in the business now. In my day there was just one [show business] magazine, Backstage, and that you would look in the back where the auditions listings were and then find out who had an open call."
But there was one question that Streep thought she could be helpful with an answer.