Saturday, July 01, 2006
Lloyd Richards Dies at age 87
O'Neill Center Director Of 32 Years Dies At 87
Lloyd Richards, Who Headed Playwrights Conference, Is Remembered For His Inspiration
By Ben Johnson, Day Writer
Lloyd Richards, the artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference for 32 years and a Tony Award-winning director who revolutionized the way new plays and playwrights made their way to the stage, died of heart failure late Thursday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
He died on his 87th birthday, his wife, Barbara Richards, said.
Richards also was a major influence on playwrights as dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre.
“He had an incredible warm and corroborative association with actors, and a very amazing ability to inspire and get the best out of his playwrights and actors,” said George White, who founded the O'Neill center in Waterford and appointed Richards artistic director of the Playwrights Conference in 1969.
When the late August Wilson came to the conference in 1982, Richards decided to mentor him. Over the years he worked closely with Wilson on Wilson's cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience, including such well-known works as “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences.” Both “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Actor Charles S. Dutton was one of the people who found inspiration in Richards' commitment to the theater.
“Lloyd is the man more responsible for my career than anyone,” said Dutton, who had learned from Barbara Richards that her husband was ill. “He gave me my first professional job as an actor in August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' in New York. I was a guy from the streets and the projects, and through Lloyd I learned sophistication and how to be an artist. I owe my life in some degree to that gentleman.”
Richards is often credited with expanding the kinds of roles African-American actors played on the American stage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was perhaps most famous for his work with young playwrights and actors, including Wilson, John Guare, Lorraine Hansberry, James Earl Jones, Lee Blessing and Sidney Poitier.
“Lloyd was one of the most important people in American theater in the last 50 years,” said Blessing, an award-winning playwright who worked closely with Richards on several plays. “The best memory I have of Lloyd is the first memory, of hearing him give the great O'Neill speech to everyone who'd come up there for the conference. He talked about the importance of playwriting, and how important it was for playwrights to go on that journey. I heard that speech many times. It was always very long, but it was always fresh.”
Blessing, whose play “Cobb,” about baseball player Ty Cobb, won the Drama Desk Award for Ensemble Acting, said Richards was an honest critic and a shrewd adviser for all of the playwrights who visited the O'Neill.
“He sat down with me one day and said, 'You're very good at this, and it's important that you choose good themes for your plays,' ” Blessing said. “And after that, I wrote my first political play, 'A Walk in the Woods.' The impetus to write that play was really inspired by Lloyd.”
Born in Toronto in 1919, Richards moved with his family to Detroit soon after and attended Wayne State University, where he studied theater and radio production. Richards' father died when he was 9, and his mother went blind, forcing him to go to work to support his family at age 13. It wasn't until much later, after his graduation from Wayne State and a year-long stint in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, that Richards followed his interest in theater to New York City.
Richards found that even in New York, work was hard to find for African-American actors in the 1950s. But he managed to appear on Broadway in productions of “Freight” and “The Egghead,” while simultaneously working in radio and teaching acting.
His big break came as director of Hansberry's “A Raisin in the Sun,” which premiered in New Haven and opened in New York in 1958. The play, which told a realistic story about a contemporary black working-class family in Chicago, galvanized Broadway and forever changed the representation of African-Americans in American theater.
“Lloyd had a passion and reverence for new playwrights and new work, and a commitment to them,” White said. “Whether he was or wasn't optimistic about the future of American theater, he sure as hell worked hard for it and believed in many of the people who were trying to make it in theater.”
White, who spent many days fishing for bluefish, stripers and bass with Richards off the Connecticut coastline, described his friend as a man who had an appreciation for music and was a connoisseur of red wine.
When the two men had lunch less than a month ago, White said that despite his recent history of heart disease, Richards was going strong.
“It was kind of a social lunch,” White said. “I was bringing him up to date on the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference, and what was going on there. We gossiped about the theater and people. He was teaching, right up to the very end, because that's what he loved doing. He was always a great teacher of acting and directing. He will be sorely missed.”
In addition to his wife, Richards is survived by two sons, Scott and Thomas.