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BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree

As I was reading The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater by Jeffrey Sweet and walking through Launchpad of the American Theater: The O'Neill Since 1964, a 50th anniversary exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, it became clear to me that the ideas, principles, and people that have shaped the O'Neill and the National Theater Institute are still so very evident and become a part of every student who studies with NTI.

It struck me that there is a kind of lineage. That all of us alums (and we total more than 3,500 artists) are somehow descendants of our teachers and the Directors of the programs. I felt an unspeakable honor being linked to so many luminaries -- both household names and those who are most familiar to us who have built ourselves a home in the theater.

As an alum of three of NTI's programs, I speak from personal experience and feel that Richard Digby-Day (the Director during my time), our playwriting teacher Donna Dinovelli (still teaching our students every week), as well as the many others who taught me during those decisive semesters are responsible for much of the direction of my life, my artistic aesthetic, and the acquaintance of so many colleagues and friends who continue to influence and inspire me.

I think about where NTI began and where it still resides, in a vision that is constantly growing and expanding with the needs of our theater, our students, and our culture. The first vision was that of O'Neill founder George White, he dreamed of turning a withering estate on the Connecticut shoreline into a theater. There was a need for a place where young playwrights could go and have their work done. Emerging actors and directors followed. This was the beginning of a conversation about what else was needed to keep the American Theater fresh and alive. The young professionals had found their oasis in the desert but what about ensuring that there would be new voices to be heard, trained actors to inhabit the roles, and directors who could handle the varying landscapes of the new plays? Who would be the designers, writers, performers, and directors to carry the theater forward?

In 1970 the students of the National Theater Institute became the answer to that question. The idea was to offer a conservatory-style theater training program, and to do a lot in very little time. The goal: preparing aspirants for the life of a theater artist with solid training in acting, directing, movement, voice, and playwriting. In the beginning it was a handful of dedicated teachers who made this possible. Among those first teachers was Lloyd Richards, the first artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference. Lloyd, a leading light of the American Theater responsible for the emergence of some of our country's most valuable and renowned playwrights and actors, taught scene study. From what I have heard from his pupils he was a gentle, generous, and unwavering teacher.

The family tree of NTI encompasses names that are familiar and pivotal in the history of American Theater. But there is something else. There is a continuum of philosophy and principle. From the start, J Ranelli and the other founders of the National Theater Institute wanted professionals to be training the next generation of theater artists. This idea of old school apprenticeship paired with constant practice, became the foundation of NTI. Where young artists are prepared for the possibility of a life in the theater and what that means: long days, collaboration, and almost constant productivity, receptivity, and creativity. No small feat.

When Richard Digby-Day became the Director the schedule turned into an especially rigorous one, 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, a demanding schedule that remains to this day. He insisted that the students be "relentlessly engaged" in a classical training that would serve many as a foundation for a career. Every Artistic Director since has brought his or her own sensibility and a new flair, but this schedule has remained along with a variety of classes to truly expose students to many ways of seeing and making theater.

Our family tree continues to grow new branches with the arrival of the National Music Theater Institute (NMTI). NMTI unites NTI's rigorous training with faculty who are among the best and brightest of our present music theater generation. Like NTI, NMTI will grow and change with the needs of the music theater and the students it serves. Rooted by the same philosophical, professional, and educational objectives developed nearly 50 years ago, this latest semester-long, credit-earning program enables students to create original work and lays the groundwork for the future of music theater.

We can look at the line of teachers through to the line of alums and see exactly what Richard Digby-Day was talking about when he told my class in the fall of 1994 that we had to keep the wheel of the theater turning. He explained that it wasn't enough to practice what we were taught, but we must also teach others so that the craft, the practice of making theater, would not die. This, one might say, is the "super objective" of all the programs that have been born from that first vision of a theater by the sea dedicated to developing new works and new artists. In my capacity as the National Theater Institute's Artistic Director, I endeavor for NTI to keep the craft not just alive but pertinent, present, and valuable to the conversations and needs of today's society. We need the theater more than ever and we need the people who make it to be strong, versatile, inexhaustible artists and craftspeople. That was true when NTI began nearly 45 years ago and it holds true today.

- Rachel Jett
NTI Artistic Director

Rachel Jett has been a faculty member at the National Theater Institute since 1998 and is an alum of the NTI, NTI-Advanced Directing, and Moscow Art Theatre Semesters. A 2006 Baryshnikov Fellow, she holds an MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts Musical Theater Writing Program and is the first American aspirant to Andrei Droznin, master teacher of movement at the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow, Russia. Rachel is one of the few practitioners teaching his method of Russian movement in the United States. Named "One of 50 to Watch" by Dramatist Magazine, she is a lyricist/librettist and a former company member of the Helen Hayes Award-winning Stanislavsky Theater Studio and SYNETIC Theater in Washington, D.C. In 2014, she appeared in a short film written by Donna Di Novelli.

Next week: Actor, writer, director, and NTI alum Josh Radnor reflects on his time at the National Theater Institute in the spring of 1995.

To learn more and apply, visit and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@NTIRiskFailRisk). Deadline to apply for the spring 2015 semester is October 20 and fall 2015 semester is March 20. Early applications are encouraged.

high res photos

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
A Tree-Lined Driveway welcomes students, faculty, and artists to the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Droznin Tree created by the Fall 2013 Ensemble

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Summer Season Celebrated 50 Years of Developing New Work and New Artists in 2014

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Much of what we now take for granted in contemporary theater contains DNA that can be traced back to a green patch of land overlooking the Long Island Sound.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
NTI Artsitic Director leads a droznin class for NTI alumni during Homecoming Weekend.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Rachel Jett, NTI Artsitic Director, demonstrates for the class.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Students devise new work on the O'Neill's beautiful 90-acre campus.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Students in class with Reed Birney. To study with NTI is to create theater on equal footing with the hundreds of theatrical luminaries.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
Students Perform under a Historic Copper Beech Tree in the O'Neill's Edith Oliver Theater.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
The Eugene ONeill Theater Centers campus is a collection of renovated 19th-century mansions, farmhouses, and barns overlooking the Long Island Sound.

BWW Exclusive: National Theater Institute's Family Tree
The O'Neill's Margo and Rufus Rose Barn Theater

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