Some people were born to do their jobs. Tiffani Gavin is one of them.
Gavin recently signed on as only the fifth executive director in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s legendary 55-year history and is the first woman of color to ever lead the celebrated organization. She has spent decades exploring every facet of the performing arts.
With experience in theater on both the creative and business sides, Gavin has served as managing director of the American Repertory Theater, executive producer at SFX/Clear Channel and manager of Broadway’s Marquis Theatre.
She is excited to use her expertise to build on the legacy of the center, located in Waterford, Connecticut, and to continue what has been a cherished partnership with Connecticut College. Conn is a founding academic partner of the center, a collaboration that has intertwined the institutions in beneficial ways, from sharing guest artists to establishing internships with the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute and its National Playwrights and National Music Theater conferences.
The roots of Gavin’s passion for performing arts trace back to her childhood, when her mother, who had a background in music, enrolled her in acting classes at age six. As she progressed through school, Gavin performed in school musicals, sang in chorus and participated in her church choir. In college, she held a casting internship with the Public Theater in New York—and realized she was more interested in working behind the scenes than onstage. After graduation, Gavin was offered a job as assistant to the manager at the Public Theater.
“That job really introduced me to a world I had never known before—company management, general management, managing budgets and contracts—and I enjoyed it because I was able to interact with everybody from the cast members to the box office to the operations people,” Gavin said.
She then switched roles to become the assistant to the artistic producer, which exposed her to the other side of the industry and rounded out her experience in an unusual way. Theater administrators typically pursue either the business path or the creative path. Gavin found herself bouncing between the two.
“I feel like going back and forth between the artistic production and general management sides gave me a comprehensive understanding of how the seed of an idea becomes a play, and then how the play runs its course all the way until it’s retired,” Gavin said. That comprehensive background made Gavin the perfect fit for the O’Neill Center, which has a single leadership structure that differs from most other theaters. And the prominent position the center holds in the story of American theater and its reputation for risk-taking and innovation were very attractive to her.
“The O’Neill has a legacy of letting people discover how to perform and how to write in a safe laboratory alongside talented professionals,” she explained. “Writers and performers come in through the National Theater Institute and are able to take risks and learn from what works and what doesn’t work, so it’s a great early development opportunity that truly fosters long-term relationships.”
The O’Neill Center also owns the Monte Cristo Cottage, in New London, once the boyhood home of Eugene O’Neill himself, who remains the only American playwright to be awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. The cottage was the setting of his autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and is now a museum that has been restored to appear as it did when O’Neill lived there.
Robert A. Richter ’82, director of arts programming at Conn and an O’Neill scholar, said the center and cottage museum are major assets not only for Conn students but for scholars and O’Neill fans from around the world.
“The cottage and Connecticut College’s own Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection, in the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives at Shain Library, make New London a destination for national and international scholars interested in Eugene O’Neill and American theater,” Richter said. “Conn regularly holds classes at the cottage, and there is no better way to gain insight into America’s greatest playwright than to explore where he grew up.”
As the country confronts a racial reckoning, and the arts are increasingly committed to promoting diversity, Gavin says she sees an important continued role for the O’Neill Center to keep building on its reputation for valuing diversity and inclusion.
“The O’Neill has always had very diverse voices onstage. But I do think a place where theater in general struggles is finding racial diversity beyond the stage—beyond actors, beyond writers. There are more stories to be told that are more reflective of society as a whole, but that happens most effectively when you start diversifying the people in the room from the board level to management to designers and directors so that we have multiple voices,” Gavin said.
“The O’Neill has been and continues to be very committed to adding more people of color to the board and to administration, and I think that permeates through the entire organization and through our artistic discourse.”