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Direction, not directing

Michael Ritchie, tapped to take over Center Theatre Group, is hailed for his focus on the overall picture.

October 07, 2003|Diane Haithman and Don Shirley | Times Staff Writers

As Center Theatre Group announces the appointment of Michael Ritchie, producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, as its new artistic director, many theater professionals are hailing the successor to Gordon Davidson for an unusual quality: He doesn't want to direct.

As rumors circulated in recent days that Ritchie, 45, was among three finalists to replace longtime CTG artistic director-producer Davidson, 70, some people noted that Ritchie, a former stage manager, was the only person on the short list with no directing experience. The other leading candidates to head CTG -- the organization that runs the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and the coming Kirk Douglas Theatre -- were Gregory Boyd, artistic director at Houston's Alley Theatre, and Oskar Eustis, artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.

In his role as a stage manager, Ritchie has assisted directors and supervised many productions after the directors left following opening night. He has served as producer at Williamstown since 1996.

Even if called upon to make his directorial debut during his stint at the Taper, Ritchie said he would refrain from personally staging shows during the first two seasons as artistic director because he fears that "while I was locked in the rehearsal room, I would be letting other things go."

Among the theater community, many noted playwrights call Ritchie's deliberate avoidance of the director's chair one of the best things about him. A number pointed to Andre Bishop of Lincoln Center as another well-respected artistic director who came to the job without the hands-on experience of directing a play.

"Directing a play is not the same thing as running a theater, and I would argue that they are often contradictory," said Jon Robin Baitz, who has a long history of working with Ritchie, who served as stage manager on Baitz's "Three Hotels." The Williamstown Theatre Festival produced revivals of Baitz's "End of the Day," "The Film Society" and the playwright's new version of "Hedda Gabler."

"In terms of coming up through the system of New York stage managers, he was fabulously well-regarded in that he not only kept shows running beautifully, with great calm and equanimity, but also helped to train young stage managers. There was sort of a Michael Ritchie style, which was very easy, very calming."

Playwright Donald Margulies observed with a laugh that Ritchie was "witness to my first clinical depression" as stage manager on Margulies' ill-fated "What's Wrong With This Picture?" on Broadway. With more success, Ritchie oversaw Margulies' plays "Broken Sleep" and his mammoth "God of Vengeance," which featured some 26 actors on the Williamstown stage.

"What he is so talented at is celebrating other people in the theater -- that is his terrific gift," Margulies said. "His ego never enters the work. Everybody wants to direct; I want to direct. He knows everyone, too; he is one of those extraordinary persons who knows just about everybody."

Playwright Alfred Uhry describes Ritchie's taste in theater as highly personal. "His taste is what he likes; it's like a house that might not make it into Architectural Digest, but it's a good house, reflective of the people who live there, completely without pretension."

Ritchie grew up in Worcester, Mass., not far from Williamstown. "My family didn't go to the theater until I started working in it," he said. His father was an electrician, his mother a homemaker. He attended Assumption College in Worcester, majoring in sociology "at the behest of my parents," he said, for two years. But he finally told his parents: "What am I going to do, open up a sociology shop?" Though he has never taken any theater courses, he did teach stage management at Fordham University for a year.

Ritchie's primary theatrical training was at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, N.J., where he made his only acting appearance in the chorus of "Plain and Fancy" when he was 15. "I hated being onstage. I can't sing, dance or act," he said. "I hoped they wouldn't send me home when they found out I didn't want to act."

Ira Lapidus, a Williamstown dentist who serves as president of the board of Williamstown Theatre Festival, had just become board president when the board decided to hire a new leader, reportedly because it was dissatisfied with the recurring absences of Peter Hunt, Ritchie's predecessor in the Williamstown post.

"I encouraged [Ritchie] to become the producer. When you're a producer, you're not concentrating on your play or your two plays," Lapidus said. "You're concentrating on getting the best directors. Michael has all the skills of a director but he doesn't direct.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for him. Under him, we raised the level of our productions, both on stage and what we do in new play development. We established an endowment fund, expanded our outreach."

Ritchie's predecessor, Hunt, returned to Williamstown this year and directed two productions. He called Ritchie "a great choice" for CTG. "He's a strong people person. He understands people very well," Hunt said. "He knows how to deal with the old guard, the new guard, Williams College [where the festival is based], the board. Boards can be dangerous waters. Michael has done a magnificent job of negotiating all of that. He has kept the mix between new plays and classical works strong. And the festival infrastructure is in much better shape now than ever."

Of working in Los Angeles, Hunt added: "Here you're always competing with film and TV. People fall out of casts because of more lucrative jobs." Still, Hunt said, "I couldn't be more pleased for Los Angeles."

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