NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Soon after Lloyd Richards settled into his new jobs as Dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1979, he got a call from his old acting buddy, James Earl Jones. "He congratulated me on my appointment," recalls Richards, "but I said, 'It doesn't end there. If I go to Yale, you go, too. As do a few other people.' "
Richards wasn't joking. Jones played in Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens," put Richards in touch with Athol Fugard, then appeared in Yale's American premiere of Fugard's "A Lesson From Aloes." And when Richards helped launch the career of a new playwright named August Wilson a few years later, Jones was back to star in Wilson's play "Fences."
This networking is part of what Richards does best. He has spent 40 years in the business--on stage as an actor, backstage as a director and off stage as a producer, administrator and educator. But it is Richards' unique talent of finding and nurturing talent that has made him one of the most influential, although not one of the most visible, figures in current American theater.
While other regional theater producers also send new plays and playwrights spinning to the top, Richards seems to put a special spin on his finds. As Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld says, "Lloyd is there at conception."
For the last 22 years, Richards has been artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference--perhaps the most important new play forum in the country. He has kicked off the career of not just 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson but also 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner Wendy Wasserstein. Playwrights like David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), Lanford Wilson ("Burn This"), Christopher Durang and John Guare have all spent summers with him.
Nobody else can work a play like Richards does. In the Richards' creative loop now is Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," opening at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre on Thursday and a candidate for the coming Ahmanson Theatre season at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. The play, which traces the Charles family through slavery to 1936 Pittsburgh, began at the O'Neill, was launched at Yale and played both Boston's Huntington Theatre and Chicago's Goodman Theatre before landing on the West Coast.
"To me," says Richards, "that's the American National Theater: the exchange of work and artists among the regions. Regional theaters have brought together communities of people and I want those communities to experience and understand August Wilson's work, what he has to say, what he thinks about, and what he is projecting on the stage. Now August Wilson is known throughout the country and his work is done everywhere, but that wasn't always so."
You could say the same thing about Richards, a short, solid, gentle man who first came to prominence as the director of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" in 1959. From his work with 29-year-old Hansberry so many years ago to his work today with artists like Wilson, Richards has spent a life in the theater maximizing the creativity of others.
Richards was delighted when he won a Tony award in 1987 for directing "Fences," says New Yorker theater critic Edith Oliver, long an O'Neill resident dramaturge, "but he was probably four times as delighted that August won. Nobody I can think of is more interested in new talent or nurtures it with more consideration."
But others have similar qualities. What is it that sets Richards apart? "There are people who have one or another of Lloyd's facets--equally good directors, equally good people with his dramaturgical skills, with his theatrical statesmanship, his ability as a teacher in the broadest sense," says O'Neill founder George White. "But nobody else puts them all together. I thought if anything happened to Lloyd, where would I go. And I have to tell you, I don't know."
Command central is a rumpled office in the Yale School of Drama, a block from the Yale Repertory Theatre and a two-hour ride to Broadway. Richards is just back today from New York meetings about next summer's Playwrights Conference, and scripts are stacked up on the sofa behind him.
It was in a stack of O'Neill submissions seven years ago that Richards first came upon the work of August Wilson, a Minneapolis-based poet whose earlier submissions to the O'Neill had all been rejected.
Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" caught Richards' eye. It wasn't yet a play , says the director, "but the things that made him attractive as a potential writer for the theater were there. The characters lifted off the page. I'm not looking for a play to produce; I'm looking for a talent to support. I am looking for a unique voice for the theater, to which the theater should pay attention."