O'Neill expert to address acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare fest
By Lou Fancher
When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was looking for an expert to speak about the work of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, they scoured the country.
Residence Programs Manager Robert Goodwin wanted a scholar to shed light on O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Long Day's Journey Into Night," scheduled for the prestigious festival's 80th anniversary season, which runs February to November annually. The festival attracts more than 100,000 people to Ashland, Oregon, each year.
"Part of my work curating the festival series requires I do research," Goodwin says. "I came across Tao House, and they gave me a couple of names. Eric (Fraisher Hayes) and I had a conversation via email, and I learned how he'd been active in the foundation."
Hayes is artistic director of Role Player Ensemble in Danville and the vice president of programming for the Eugene O'Neill Foundation. At Tao House, O'Neill's former home and a designated National Historic Site, Hayes has directed a number of works by O'Neill, as well as acting in and directing productions throughout the Bay Area. The foundation supports preservation of the home, an archival library, educational programs and presents plays and readings of O'Neill's work.
"Eric's active commitment hit my barometer," Goodwin says. "I'm interested in people who can integrate scholarship with a record of performance in their community. His background shows he's done the necessary research and has brought that to the stage."
Learning that Hayes had read through the entire O'Neill canon, Goodwin invited him to Ashland, where the festival operates three stages on a 4-acre campus. Amid a warren of classroom buildings and outdoor and indoor performance venues, Hayes will deliver an audience-enrichment talk on June 20.
"I suppose it's a feather in my cap," Hayes says, about the invitation.
Hayes intends to expand beyond the show being performed at the festival to speak about O'Neill as a constantly evolving artist who, nonetheless, returned repeatedly to central themes.
"O'Neill tells the same story, again and again. In 1924, he wrote "All God's Chillun Got Wings" -- that got attention for an interracial marriage. But the central characters' names are variations on his parents' names. In some ways, it was about how they struggled to fit together: in the play, they split along racial lines; with his parents, the division is along the class differential."
Hayes says "Long Days Journey" is yet again the same story, written in a different style almost 20 years later.
From O'Neill's early, short sketches that read almost like detached writing exercises to his autobiographical period with tales of the men he met at sea to commercial successes like "Beyond the Horizon," Hayes admires the playwright's grand theatricality.
"O'Neill did not invent expressionism in the theater, but he brought it into the mainstream. He broadened the horizons of how to tell a story in the American theater."
Even so, Hayes says O'Neill's plays often ride along a dark edge that's further enhanced by production notes, like the two spotlights that track the central couple in "Welded," hitting other actors only peripherally -- or the masks worn to express inner- and outer-life dichotomies in "The Great God Brown."
"Regardless of the magic, to be effective, an O'Neill production has to be realistic," he says. "He writes for people experiencing giant emotions. If you don't have actors who can go to that epic, sweeping, powerful place, it won't work."
Goodwin says Hayes' talk was fashioned collaboratively.
"I saw his interests, and then I opened the door. The conversation will connect the work at Tao House with the production here," Goodwin says.
Admittedly, Hayes is hoping to spread the word about the foundation -- not just about O'Neill -- to the people attending the festival. Although it's hard to imagine that Tao House could replicate the splash the festival makes in Ashland (a city with a population of 20,000 as of 2013) in the Bay Area, Hayes is a man unafraid of ambitious dreams.
"I admire Ashland for becoming a destination on the West Coast. They made themselves into something. Tao House should be a beacon also. I'll let them know there's a destination in the Danville hills, too," he says.