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William Ball Stays Up After the Fall : Four years after a controversial departure from a theater company he founded, he's winding up a role in 'Cherry Orchard' in La Jolla

June 10, 1990|NANCY CHURNIN

LA JOLLA — If Chekhov, that supreme painter of ironies, is looking down from the heavens, he is no doubt smiling with quiet pleasure over the casting of William Ball as Leonid Gaev, whose family loses its homestead and deficit-plagued property in "The Cherry Orchard" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

It's perfect casting and not just because Ball lost his own cherry orchard of sorts four years ago. At the time, he resigned amid charges of poor management of the deficit-ridden American Conservatory Theatre, the San Francisco company he had founded and directed for 21 years.

Like Gaev, who is endlessly distracted by beauty, the 59-year-old Ball insists on accentuating the positive, even, some might say, at the expense of truth. After granting no interviews in four years, there are numerous questions about the various accusations leveled at him in 1986.

Did Ball--one of the pioneers of the regional theater movement--advance his own salary disproportionately at a time when the theater was in fiscal crisis? Was the well-publicized fight between him and Cyril Magnin, his longtime fund-raiser, the beginning of the end? Does he regret the letter he wrote to the California Arts Council, accusing the organization of "being ineffective and lacking in integrity" after it cut ACT's grant allocation by 83% from 1980 to 1982? Does he regret leaving ACT?

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 17, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Theatrical--A June 10 Calendar article on stage actor/director William Ball misstated his business relationship to David Sacks. Sacks is Ball's theatrical agent.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 17, 1990 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part J Page 2 Column 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
YMCA classes--A caption with photographs of children's gymnastics classes in Thursday's editions gave an incorrect location for the classes. They are at the Santa Anita YMCA in Monrovia.

No, says he, denying it all, down to having the slightest twinge at the loss of ACT, where he hasn't seen a show since he left.

"I did everything I wanted to do as a producer of a resident theater," he said. "I produced all the plays I wanted to (more than 300), raised all the money I ever want to raise. Twenty years at a job is enough."

The only thing he does admit to is an unwillingness to talk about regrets: "The dark time," he says, "is like putting out the garbage. You don't look at the garbage."

In a way, it is his continuing belief in himself that propelled his rise and then kept him afloat after his fall from grace.

"I've always had this sense of being guided," he said recently. Such a hand may have pushed him to take this part--the first acting job in 28 years for a man whom Craig Noel, executive director of the Old Globe Theatre here, calls "the best Hamlet I've ever seen." Ball played the role at the Old Globe in 1955.

Guided or not, what in fact happened was that Ball moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to develop feature film and television projects with producer Bud Yorkin; nothing came of that and he was willing to try something new after four years of sporadic employment, which included teaching and an ill-fated assignment at the Odyssey Theatre to direct "Tom and Viv." (Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey, told The Times that Ball quit prior to the opening when Sossi found fault with the leading actor, Scot Bishop; Ball said that he never formally agreed to direct the piece in the first place.)

Ball acquired a casting agent who, on seeing Ball with a beard (since shaved), thought he looked Russian and sent Ball's picture to the Playhouse. He didn't realize that "Cherry Orchard" director Tom Moore had staged many shows for Ball at ACT, including a lavishly reviewed production of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."

Moore and Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff went to Ball's home in Los Angeles to discuss the part and Ball auditioned for the role as any other actor would. "I wasn't quite sure how it would go . . . . But I'm having the time of my life."

After years of literally and figuratively being the golden-haired boy, Ball, now balding and gray beneath the blond wig that he dons for Gaev, retains the charismatic zeal for art that has touched so many artists who worked under him at ACT: Harry Hamlin, Annette Benning, Michael Learned, Denzel Washington, Rene Auberjonois and Mark Harelik (also in "Cherry Orchard").

Harelik, who worked at ACT, from 1979-81, says he has never seen Ball work so hard, or be so happy.

"It was very important to him that the play be successful and his role be successful," said Harelik, who plays Yermolai Lopakhin--the character who purchases the Gaev estate.

"I don't think he really knew what it would be like walking on stage again, in probably what he considered to be a relatively high-powered company, and with as demanding a director as Tom Moore, who is an absolute perfectionist. For him it was something like jumping off a cliff at night.

"There is no sense of having been his prior subordinate," Harelik said. "It's almost as though during those years as artistic director he wanted to climb up on stage with us and now he's gotten his chance. He's just in heaven."

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