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So hard to say goodbye

Williamstown, Mass., worries about storied theater festival producer Michael Ritchie's departure to L.A.

August 08, 2004|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Williamstown, Mass. — Ralph Renzi can be blamed for all the 50th anniversary hoopla around the Williamstown Theatre Festival, for he was the one, back in the sleepy summer of 1954, who decided that the northern Berkshires were destined to offer attractions beyond their "roadside stands retailing trinkets."

A rich New York couple, the Clarks, already were building an art museum up the street to put their Renoirs out of the reach of a nuclear attack. So Renzi -- then news director of Williams College -- got on the case of a professor who each summer took students to Cape Cod to put on plays.

"I said, 'Why are you out there when you've got this theater here?' " recalls Renzi, referring to the classically columned Adams Memorial Theatre behind the Dutch Ems of Main Street, across from a row of fraternity houses.

Of course, they might not be celebrating today had the initial plan of the professor gone through: David C. Bryant Jr. thought they might have a different New England college put on a show each week, drawing audiences of faithful alumni. They would import a touch of the big time by offering "gratuities" to leading critics, who would "hold seminars to critique the collegiate thespians."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Center Theatre Group -- A photo caption with an article summary in the index on Page E3 of today's Calendar section misidentifies Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group as Central Theatre.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 15, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Center Theatre Group -- A caption in the Contents column of last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly referred to the Center Theatre Group as Central Theatre.

Fortunately, that plan gave way to another -- of mixing proven actors with young wannabes -- before the festival debuted in summer '55. A fundraising drive brought $500 from a part-time resident of the town, Cole Porter. A 10-week season was plotted with a $21,000 budget and staff of 26, all put up in a fraternity. The first play, "The Time of the Cuckoo," featured a local girl made good, actress Marcia Henderson, fresh off a series on the fledgling medium of TV, "Dear Phoebe," with Peter Lawford. "The so-called stars were not real luminaries," says Renzi, 83, "but to us they were."

Their coup, though, was the hiring of an assistant director out of the drama program at Yale, Greek immigrant Nikos Psacharopoulos. When the professor departed after the first season, he was left in charge -- and with $256 in the bank account. Within a few years he had an apprentice program running (with actor-director Austin Pendleton among the first crew), had persuaded Thornton Wilder to play the stage manager in his own "Our Town" and had created an environment in which Oscar winners past and future such as Olympia Dukakis and Joanne Woodward would work for scale for the privilege of performing or directing works by Chekhov and the like.

Today, the Dutch Elms and fraternities are no more and the beloved Nikos is gone as well, having passed on after 33 seasons and a final production of "The Three Sisters," with Christopher Walken, Amy Irving and Rob Lowe. Early benefactor Porter is long dead too, though his old summer home is on the market -- for $2.5 million. The festival once put on with a shoestring staff now uses an artistic army of 450 over the course of the summer

But they're still attracting Oscar-caliber talent -- Marisa Tomei completes a turn in Noel Coward's "Design for Living" this afternoon -- and they're still doing Chekhov. "The Cherry Orchard" opens Thursday. So they may be allowed a little nostalgia in a festival that has launched many careers -- and marriages -- and thrived as the antithesis to the image of summer stock as the equivalent of beach reading.

Yet even as they prepare for the 50th anniversary bash Aug. 28, there is anxiety in the mountain air. For much is being lost, starting with the theater named for President John Quincy Adams. Also taking final bows is the man in charge, Michael Ritchie, who over the last nine years has expanded on Psacharopoulos' legacy.

Ritchie will be heading west to take over the Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group, with its downtown Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre and the new Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. And if he has his way, he'll be taking much of the talent of this place, and its spirit, with him.

'Death by theater'

James Naughton was attempting "death by theater." The Saturday was his last day at this year's festival -- his 15th -- so he was cramming in stuff he'd missed, sitting in on a 2 p.m. rehearsal in a church basement (of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), then a 4 p.m. performance of a new play in the 99-seat Nikos Stage ("Rodney's Wife," with David Strathairn). Then came his own final performances, at 8 and 11 p.m., in "Cabaret & Main," which for the anniversary season moved a festival sideshow -- a late-night musical revue -- onto the Main Stage.

The cabaret began in 1972, the same year Naughton arrived fresh off his Broadway debut, in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Yet after doing Odets' "The Country Girl" here, he didn't come back for a decade. "I couldn't afford to," he says, explaining how he had a young family then and could hardly live in a dorm, but renting a house put him in the red. So in the summers following, he drove a moving van.

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