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AN APPRECIATION : William Ball's Terrific, Turbulent Career : Stage: The founder of American Conservatory Theatre was a major force in the infant regional theater movement of the time, yet there was always something disconcerting that undermined the blazing talent.

August 02, 1991|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

It didn't take prophetic powers to see that director William Ball, who died Tuesday, an apparent suicide, was his own worst enemy. You simply had to have watched his actions throughout an artistically prolific but turbulent professional life, and especially in that period in the early 1980s when a kind of hubris gripped him like a golem.

The hubris and the contradictions were not new. One side of him always seemed intent on destroying the other. He preached "positation" (his coinage) and spirituality while daily fighting personal demons he could scarcely control. Yet his achievement was indisputable. The American Conservatory Theatre he founded in Pittsburgh in 1965 and moved to San Francisco two years later was one of the earliest and most successful models for the synergistic coexistence of a training conservatory and professional theater anywhere in the country. He believed in a place where "trainer" and "trainee" (his democratic terms for teacher and student) could learn from each other, and his place was one of the best.

But despite his stature as a major force in the infant regional theater movement of the time, there was also always something wild and disconcerting eating away at him that undermined the blazing talent. He was brilliant, concealed, contentious, controlling and arrogant to the point of altering Edward Albee's script of "Tiny Alice" without bothering to consult the author. The incident unleashed one of the more raucous and shameless controversies when Albee showed up unannounced and clamored for correction.

For the majority of the 20 years that Ball was in charge, ACT was an uncommon place where uncommon talent flexed its muscles and delivered some terrific theater--mostly classics in exciting and dynamic repertory. The record was not unblemished, but the vast majority of shows were exceptional and the school and resident company developed some splendid directors and actors who either remained as the core of the company or went elsewhere to create distinguished reputations of their own. People like Tom Moore, Laird Williamson, Rene Auberjonois, Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Elizabeth Huddle, Joy Carlin and Peter Donat.

For Ball, too busy to realize it at the time, this was to be the crowning achievement of his life. He had been shot like a rocket out of the Carnegie-Mellon crucible in 1955, into a flashy string of early personal successes--much decorated productions of Chekhov, Pirandello and Dylan Thomas in such far-flung places as New York, Stratford (Ontario), Houston, Washington and London. It seemed as if nothing could stop him.

Except himself. Well-known bouts with booze and pills exacerbated the intemperate personality and growing reclusiveness. By the early 1980s, the work at ACT began to slip. So did the finances. And Ball had lost perspective on it all. He seemed no longer to differentiate between himself as an individual and the institution he had created, dismaying associates with infuriating behavior and alienating the very people who had invited him to San Francisco in the first place. In typically flamboyant (and prophetic) style, he abruptly announced his 1985 resignation while staging a crucifixion scene.

The surrender of ACT turned out to be much more serious for Ball than just losing a theater. It was losing a compass--the context in which to do what he seemed born for: direct, act, teach and, in a certain way, to govern, sometimes so brilliantly, so zanily, so egotistically and so melodramatically, that out of the heat were forged amazing creations.

Life was never the same for Ball after he left ACT. He had ruffled too many feathers. He was perceived as erratic, fallen from grace. He moved to Southern California and made one or two abortive attempts to direct in small venues, but backed out of them quickly. He remained in the shadows, teaching and writing. But the shadows were not the place for a man used to a searing limelight.

In May, 1990, his friend and former associate, director Tom Moore, gave Ball the chance to play Gaev in a glorious production of "The Cherry Orchard" at the La Jolla Playhouse. For a shimmering moment, Ball was back in his element. Despite a 28-year absence from the stage, his portrayal of the coddled, incompetent Gaev was exquisitely tender, vague, distraught. He'd had a hip-replacement operation and used his limp and his cane to enhance the character. As Gaev stumbled distracted out of the house in which he'd lived all his life, a house lost by his bungled finances and mismanagement, Ball was playing out his own final scene.

Friends were shocked by his death. He had been in good spirits, they said. He'd been positive and constructive. All the craziness was part of the past. But the fact is society was making no room for him at the table. The banquet had come and gone. At the time of his death, he was reportedly writing a sequel to his earlier book on directing, "A Sense of Direction." Bill Ball, who had it so clearly on stage, never quite found it in life.

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