On a sunny Saturday at the end of June, this sleepy New
England college town has been stripped of students. The
rolling lawns look a bit lonely. Most of the buildings at
Williams College stand quietly behind their classical Greek
columns, closed up like pocket watches.
Everywhere you turn, though,
there seem to be theater people. Crowds form outside the Adams
Memorial Theater, which houses the Williamstown Theater
Festival's two stages. In Tennessee Williams's play "The
Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," Olympia Dukakis
staggers around the mainstage in Kabuki clogs as the legendary
actress Flora Goforth. She air-kisses Mary Louise Wilson, who
has barely changed out of the Diana Vreeland drag she sported
last season in her award-winning impersonation, "Full
At a coffee shop nearby, cast
members from the festival's Other Stage revival of Jon Robin
Baitz's corrosive comedy "The End of the Day"
converge for breakfast. They include David Marshall Grant, one
of the principals on Broadway in "Angels in
America," and Claudia Shear, in her first major
appearance since her successful one-woman show Off Broadway,
"Blown Sideways Through Life."
Their director, Scott
Elliott, who received glowing notices for his work in the Off
Broadway plays "Ecstasy," "The Monogamist"
and "Curtains," is holed up in a church basement on
the grounds of the college. He is staging the American
premiere of "The Ride Down Mount Morgan," a dramatic
comedy by Arthur Miller. The cast includes F. Murray Abraham,
Michael Learned, Patricia Clarkson and Adina Porter, who had
the title role in Suzan-Lori Parks's recent "Venus"
at the Public Theater.
Later, at a local restaurant,
Andrea Martin, who just finished her one-woman show,
"Nude Nude Totally Nude," at the Public Theater, and
Victor Garber, late of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia,"
meet for dinner on a break from rehearsals of "The Royal
Family," the comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
modeled on the Barrymores. The production, which also stars
Blythe Danner, Marian Seldes and Kate Burton, is an
opportunity, Ms. Martin notes, for watching "some serious
The summer influx of New York
theater people to this northwest corner of Massachusetts has
been a tradition since 1955. For years, the attraction was the
indefatigable energy and personality of the Williamstown
Theater Festival's longtime artistic director, Nikos
Psacharopoulos, who died in 1989 at the age of 60.
What is remarkable this year,
though, is that a hip, up-to-the-minute season has been
snatched from the void. When Michael Ritchie, the festival's
new producer, showed up for his first day of work on Jan. 2,
"nothing was in place," he remembered.
Mr. Ritchie, 38, was an
11th-hour replacement for Peter Hunt, a longtime assistant to
Mr. Psacharopoulos, who had presided over the theater since
1989. When Mr. Hunt was suddenly and somewhat mysteriously
fired by the board of trustees last September, the next season
had not been planned.
While Mr. Ritchie has managed
to schedule a full program of 11 plays in 11 weeks, five
new-play readings, a solo series, a weekend cabaret and a
children's theater program based on Willie Reale's acclaimed
52d Street Project, his own future at Williamstown is a bit of
a mystery too. Will he be the stable, creative force the board
says it has been seeking, or is there more turmoil to come?
"It's a big
operation," Mr. Ritchie said in a quiet office near the
theater's lobby. "And we were way behind in January. We
had done no fund-raising. We hadn't planned a season. We had
no directors, actors, plays, staff, apprentices. Public
relations-wise, Williamstown had been sitting under a cloud.
Nothing was going on."
The festival had been at a
standstill since Sept. 10, when Mr. Hunt received a call from
the board's lawyer at his home in Los Angeles informing him
that he had been dismissed. A number of people associated with
the festival were shocked, including Mr. Hunt, a Tony
Award-winning director who had worked at Williamstown for more
than 30 years.
"I have a master's
degree from the Yale School of Drama," Mr. Hunt, 57, said
by telephone from Los Angeles. "They're missing one
course there. It should be called Boardology. This is my own
supposition: while working to keep the theater going, I
neglected a lot of board protocol. The most difficult thing is
that the Williamstown Theater Festival always called itself a
family. As the senior member of that family, you would think
that even if they wanted to give the old guy a watch and say
goodbye, you'd still be toddled out for functions."
To some members of the
Williamstown "family," however, the change was not
as mysterious as it seemed. "For almost 35 years,"
said Robert Alpaugh, who served as managing director both
before and after Mr. Psacharopoulos's death, "Nikos woke
up in the morning thinking about deals, actors and plays. He
dedicated his life to Williamstown, and that's what made it
work. Peter had a whole other life on the coast that he wasn't
able to give up, making TV movies that kept him in a life
style he wanted to be in. Perhaps in the board's eye, the
festival was suffering because of that."
Asked directly why Mr. Hunt
was fired, Ira Lapidus, the board president, said, "The
best way to interpret the board's action is we decided not to
renew his contract."
After Mr. Hunt's dismissal, a
search committee pursued, among others, Jon Jory, the head of
the Actors Theater of Louisville. Offered the job, Mr. Jory
said he seriously considered it but ultimately turned it down.
Shortly before Christmas, Mr. Ritchie was asked to produce the
"What Michael did was
very smart; he went around and hired all the hot people from
the last two seasons in New York," said David Schweizer,
who directed "Milk Train."
MR. RITCHIE, A NATIVE OF
Worcester, Mass., had made a career as a Broadway stage
manager. When a 1981 production of Shaw's "Candida"
that he managed at the Kenyon Theater Festival in Ohio moved
to Circle in the Square in New York, its star, Ms. Woodward,
insisted that Mr. Ritchie accompany it. He stayed for several
years at Circle in the Square and began to stage-manage at
other theaters, including Lincoln Center and Williamstown.
"I loved it," said
Mr. Ritchie. "Some people think it's a drudge job, but I
loved being in the rehearsal room. I could have happily been a
stage manager the rest of my life." (If the director is
the creative parent of a production, and often disappears
after opening night, the stage manager is the benevolent older
sibling who maintains the quality of the show day after day.)
When he was approached by the
Williamstown board, "the clock was ticking," he
said. "I walked in and said, 'All we have to think about
is how to get from here to Labor Day,' and I laid out my idea
of what I would do.
four different audiences -- the local audience, the tourist
audience, the New York theater community and what people call
the family. I wanted to pull together different groups that
would show off the strength of the place."
"There's a big thing
here with the family," he explained. "It's mainly
the actors but there are some directors and writers. It's the
people who come back year after year. Olympia's been coming
here for 30 years. Blythe is in her 19th season. James
Naughton, Maria Tucci -- the audience here loves those people.
When they go on to bigger success, the audience thrives on
that. I wanted to get as much of the family together as
possible this season because we were in transition. But I also
wanted a real nuts-and-bolts New York theater presence. The
board said, 'Go do it.' "
So there he was on Jan. 2,
alone in the festival's New York office, "sitting at a
big blank empty desk." He started working the phone.
"My second day, Joanne Woodward called and said,
'Whatever you need, whatever you want, I'm there.' I said,
'What do you want to do?' She said, 'I have a couple of
Clifford Odets plays I'd like to direct.' She told me which
ones. I literally ran to Barnes & Noble, across Union
Square, grabbed the plays, read them, came back, called her
and said, 'O.K. -- "Rocket to the Moon." ' "
(Ms. Woodward will direct the play on the Other Stage,
starting Aug. 14.)
"Then I thought, 'I've
never done an Arthur Miller play, and I'd like to.' I decided
to read all his plays, though in my heart I figured I would
end up picking 'Death of a Salesman.' First I was struck by
'All My Sons,' how good it was. Then I ran into the director
Austin Pendleton who said, 'You should look into "The
Ride Down Mount Morgan," it's never been done here.' I
was really surprised by that play. So I arranged to meet with
Arthur to discuss doing the two plays together. At the end of
the meeting, he said: 'That sounds like a good idea. Let's
go.' Suddenly, I had the basis of a season." (Barry
Edelstein is directing "All My Sons" on the Other
Stage, through July 21.)
IT BECAME LIKE A SNOWball,"
Mr. Ritchie said. "There were almost too many
choices." Then Ms. Dukakis and Mr. Schweizer came to him
with "Milk Train." "Olympia had a five-week
window of opportunity between films," Mr. Ritchie said,
"so it fell into our laps and solved the last piece of
The three months of planning
the $1.7 million season became Mr. Ritchie's on-the-job
training as stage manager turned producer. "The two are
not that different," he said. "I always felt that as
a stage manager I was there to support, and I think producing
is the same thing. Artists know how to do the work. Your job
is to make sure they have everything they need to do it
Mr. Ritchie brings an almost
dynastic sense of family to the theater. He is married to Ms.
Burton, the actress, who has spent seven summers at
Williamstown and famously comes from a theatrical family: her
father was Richard Burton; her mother, Sybil Burton
Christopher, co-produces the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor
on Long Island.
As his associate producer,
Mr. Ritchie has hired Jenny Gersten, a young administrator
with theatrical roots: she is the daughter of Cora Cahan,
president of New 42d Street, the nonprofit redevelopment
agency, and Bernard Gersten, the executive producer of Lincoln
The Williamstown trustees
have left undecided whether they will hire another artistic
director or reconceive the job around Mr. Ritchie.
"My dream, shared by
other people, is that Michael will stay on as producing
director," said Ms. Woodward, who joined the Williamstown
board this year. "He's done everything that I can
possibly imagine to make it a successful season. The one thing
he can't be is Nikos."
New York Times, July 14, 1996