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San Diego Spotlight: STAGE / NANCY CHURNIN

Death of William Ball Brings Tributes by S.D. Colleagues

August 08, 1991|NANCY CHURNIN

The local theater community is still mourning the loss of William Ball, who died at age 60 last week in his Hollywood apartment--an apparent suicide.

The founder and director of the Tony award-winning American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, Ball resigned from the company in 1986 amid charges of fiscal mismanagement. He moved to Los Angeles and drifted, directing shows only occasionally. Then last year, 28 years after he last acted on stage, he played Leonid Gaev, a man whose family loses its deficit-plagued homestead, in the La Jolla Playhouse production of "The Cherry Orchard."

The part was perfect for him--poignantly so. For in losing ACT, Ball had lost his own cherry orchard.

Even Ball's description of Gaev seemed a description of himself: "He wants to inspire high principles. He wants to preserve time-honored values, awaken a sense of the majesty and glory of life," he told this reporter during a rehearsal break.

He seemed very happy at the time--unless that was just more good acting.

"I feel like I'm beginning a new life," he said. "I'm tremendously grateful."

Indeed, it looked as if he were beginning a new life. After his critically acclaimed performance, he directed his own translation of Moliere's "Scapin" for the Del Mar Theatre Ensemble, a company founded and led by an actress trained at ACT, Bonnie Tarwater. Then he directed "Love's Labour's Lost" for the Old Globe's master of fine arts program.

San Diego has even older links to Ball: It was at the Old Globe that he blazed a reputation as a Wunderkind actor and director from 1955 to 1962. Craig Noel, executive director of the Old Globe, called Ball's Hamlet, which he played in two separate productions there, "the best Hamlet I've ever seen."

But not much work followed. Some who knew him well speculate that his reputation for imperious and erratic behavior scared others from offering him work. Some also speculate that, without the work he loved, death was inevitable.

"He was really irreplaceable," said Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse where, as Gaev, Ball had lit up the stage for one last luminescent time. "It's a real blow. When someone like that makes an early exit, it's not only the loss of him, but the loss of the people he would teach. That's the hidden tragedy in this. It's the minds that he would have affected that now we may never hear from at all."

Where have all the horrors gone? That's the question Jessica Amador is asking herself now that "The Rocky Horror Show," which she had seen 30 times at press time (and plans to see again) is set to close at the San Diego Repertory Theatre Sunday.

"I wanted it to keep going on and on and on," Amador said. "I'm probably going to be a wreck. I'll be crying worse than the actors at the closing."

"The Rocky Horror Show," which opened May 15, is the longest-running show on the Lyceum Stage. About 26,000 have attended, and the final attendance figure is expected to be more than 30,000--three times the average attendance for Rep shows.

Friends introduced Amador to the rock 'n' roll saga of transvestite alien Dr. Frank N. Furter May 22 when they gave her a ticket to the show for her 23rd birthday. She came, she saw and she spent her entire tax return--$300--on repeat visits--often dressed as Dr. Frank N. Furter. This musical, she explained, just hit the right chord.

"I'm sort of slightly demented and have an incredible sense of humor, and everyone else in the show seems to be in the same boat. The music is outrageous."

Amador plans to attend the final "Rocky Horror" show at 7 p.m. Sunday, when, besides regular tickets, the theater is offering $40 tickets that include a post-show party to benefit the Rep.

Ironically, despite the length of the run, Rocky failed to bail the company out of its fiscal crisis. With its large cast and live music, it's so expensive that, at best, the Rep broke even on the production, a Rep spokeswoman said.

Starting here, starting now is "Starting Here, Starting Now," the debut production of the new Theatre in Old Town company. The Francis W. Parker School is the manager of the space through a five-year agreement with the state, and the goal of the school is to create a professional season.

"Starting Here, Starting Now," a musical about romance by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, opens tonight and runs through Aug. 25. It's the first of a six-play season that emphasizes small musicals--mostly revues--including "Side By Side By Sondheim," Sept. 5-22, "I Do, I Do!," a story about marriage from the authors of "The Fantasticks," Oct. 3-20; a still untitled original revue of American songs set in Christmas during World War II Nov. 29-31 and the San Diego premiere of "Beehive," a revue of songs from the '50s and '60s, Jan. 30-Feb. 22. The season concludes with one big musical, Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," March 5-21.

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