SAN FRANCISCO — William Ball, founder and general director of San Francisco's 20-year-old American Conservatory Theater (ACT), has announced his intention to resign his position at the end of the current season.
Ball made the announcement Friday in characteristically dramatic fashion--after rehearsing the crucifixion sequence in ACT's cycle of medieval mystery plays, "The Passion Cycle," depicting the life of Christ. The news was received with shock, sorrow, and relief by members of the company and by the local theater community.
ACT has been in serious financial and artistic trouble for the past several years. Once renowned for the quality of its productions and for its professional actor-training program, the company has been struggling with a growing deficit that reached $1.5 million last year.
Its last three seasons have seen major cutbacks in personnel, a move to small-cast shows, a shift from presenting plays in rotating repertory to a sequential schedule, and a greater reliance on conservatory students to fill out the casts. These measures have not improved ACT's recent reviews, but have, according to Ball, reduced the company's deficit by $1 million.
An actor at heart, the 55-year-old Ball kept his intention to resign a closely guarded secret from the company until Friday. "Bill let us into the room at 5:30," said Jim McKenzie, ACT's executive producer from 1969 to 1982 and still a member of the Board of Trustees.
"He was rehearsing the crucifixion scene, with Christ on the cross, the whole death, being pierced with the sword, the body taken down from the cross. As the actor came down, Bill said, 'Well I think we can stop now. I have an announcement.' It was quite dramatic."
Reading from the text of his letter to the board of trustees, of which he is president, Ball announced: "At the close of this current season I plan to offer my resignation as general director of ACT. I have served the company for 20 years and now I want to pursue new creative opportunities. I will be available to provide assistance during the transition period in order to secure continuity for the company."
Ball went on to stress some of the company's achievements during his tenure. "Within the past two seasons," he said, "we have reduced the company deficit by an estimated $1 million, while realizing a growth in assets to $10 million." (The company's principal assets, McKenzie said, are its real estate holdings, recently valued at $8.3 million, including the Geary Theater where the company performs.)
"Within the past 20 years," Ball continued, "7 million patrons have attended 203 productions with an additional 500,000 schoolchildren attending student matinees. Thirteen-thousand conservatory students have received professional theater training and produced 350 studio productions. Fifty new plays have been premiered. The company has toured the Orient, the Soviet Union, the Western states, and has received the Tony Award for excellence in classical repertory and training.
"The united devotion of all our artists, craftsmen, volunteers, and subscribers has generated the flourishment of these triumphant golden years of success, and to all of them I am profoundly grateful," Ball concluded. "I am happy now to pursue new creative opportunities."
Ball's announcement was greeted by a moment of stunned silence, followed by a standing ovation from the company members. "Then," Hoskins said, "he left the hall without speaking to anyone." The reclusive Ball was not available to answer questions about his intention to resign.
Comment on Ball's announcement was mixed. "I'm not terribly surprised that this has occurred," said Bill Bushnell, artistic producing director of the Los Angeles Theater Center and ACT's managing director during its early years in San Francisco. "Obviously Bill's been under tremendous pressure in recent years."
"Things had come to such a pass between Bill and the money sources that he had his back against a wall," said Peter Donat, one of ACT's most popular performers ever since its first season. "I think Bill resigned really to save his theater. With a new artistic director, all kinds of avenues of communication will open again.
"It's a sad end, in a way, and yet the story is triumphant. He formed a repertory conservatory company that nobody in North America has ever come close to. I'm optimistic that this will ultimately end in better things for ACT."
Other observers were not so optimistic. Bruce Williams, one of several former ACT actors who are forming a new resident-theater group, the Actors' Company of San Francisco, pointed out that Ball had only announced his intention to resign as general director and had said nothing about his position as president of the Board of Trustees.
"I haven't seen him leave the building yet," Williams said. "That's what it will take for me to believe it."
McKenzie said he feels that Ball's resignation (effective May 31) is genuine. He said that the ACT board will probably meet this week to discuss choosing Ball's successor, with the goal of having the new artistic management in place in time to prepare for the new season opening in October.