WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL: How to Be a Producer, in One Instant Lesson
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 Gallop."

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 overacting."

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 1996 season.

"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.

"Williamstown serves 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 puzzle."

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 well."

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 Center Theater.

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

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