Richards, Lloyd 1923(?)–
Lloyd Richards 1923(?)–
Actor, theatrical director
Renowned actor and stage director Lloyd Richards has commanded enormous influence in American theater since the 1960s. Until 1991, Richards was the dean of the Yale School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater, both prestigious programs known for finding and nurturing new talent. Richards has made great contributions to the field of repertory theater and has helped to find a forum for the works of numerous young and untried playwrights. Washington Post correspondent Megan Rosenfeld noted that Richards “has slowly come to be acknowledged as a major influence in American theater,” and he is “one of the few directors in a position to affect future generations of theater artists, and to shape the intellectual content of the current.”
Throughout his tenure at Yale and even before, Richards strove to make regional theaters centers for new writing rather than merely places to present the classics and tired Off-Broadway hits. He has been instrumental in furthering the careers of a number of promising playwrights, including August Wilson, Athol Fugard, John Patrick Shanley, Charles Fuller, and David Henry Hwang. In bringing the works of these authors to the regional stage—and often on to Broadway—Richards has enlarged the scope of American theatrical literature. Richards told the New York Times : “There is a social and political conscience to everything I do.… I think too often an American esthetic uses as its base Western European theater. The American theater will only come from an esthetic that takes from all the various cultural influences—native and minority.”
Richards has also been director of the summer playwrights’ conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, since 1966. Each year Richards and his staff choose a handful of plays from over a thousand submissions and then subject these plays to close readings by critics and actors. This is often the first step toward a full-fledged production at a repertory theater. “Mining for new talent has preoccupied Richards for the last two decades,” noted Lawrence Devine in the Detroit Free Press. “And his record, particularly among minority playwrights, has been unsurpassed.… Richards has been able to give a second production to many writers whom he first discovered at the O’Neill.”
Richards is apparently a self-effacing man who does not
Born c. 1923 in Canada; son of a carpenter; married Barbara Davenport (an actress and playwright); children: Scott, Thomas. Education : Wayne State University, B.A., 1944; Yale University, M.F.A., 1980.
Actor, director, and administrator of theater programs, c. 1948—. Actor on stage and in television dramas during the 1950s. Acting studio director, acting teacher, and stage director, 1959-79; directorial credits include A Raisin in the Sun, produced on Broadway, 1959. Artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater and dean of the Yale School of Drama, 1979-91. Drama instructor at Hunter College, New York University, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center; director, National playwrights’ Conference, Eugene O’Neill Theater; member of advisory board, National Endowment for the Arts. Military service : Served as a military pilot during World War II.
Member: Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Actors’ Equity, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Directors Guild of America.
Awards: Received numerous theatrical awards, including the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best director of a drama, 1986, for Fences; inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, 1990; holds six honorary degrees.
like to talk about himself or his past accomplishments. Born in the early 1920s in Canada, he was still young when his father, a Jamaican immigrant who worked as a carpenter, moved the family south to Detroit. Shortly thereafter, Richards found himself facing adult responsibilities: his father died, leaving six children, and his mother lost her eyesight and was unable to work. Richards was therefore forced to get a job at an early age in order to help pay the bills. Among other things, he swept up a barbershop in his neighborhood.
Years later, when confronted with August Wilson’s plays, Richards said he recognized the voices the playwright had mined as ones he too had heard during his Detroit youth. “You’re listening in the barbershop, and you hear poetry, philosophy, sports… truly the legends,” Richards told the Orlando Sentinel. “You’re hearing history; you’re hearing the elders speak.” Those childhood memories have had a significant impact on the sorts of drama that Richards likes to direct—plays with a sense of human value. As Richards further stated: “The plays I’m interested in are generally about people and their struggle to find a way to live.”
Despite his own family’s struggle, Richards was able to attend college at Wayne State University in Detroit. He originally planned to study law but found himself more and more interested in theater—acting especially. After serving in World War II as one of the first black pilots, he returned to Detroit and became active in radio drama and regional theater. He might have been satisfied as a local success story, but instead he moved to New York City, long the hub of the American theater.
Richards was able to support himself in New York by acting in plays and television dramas. He also served as an acting coach to others at his own studio. By the late 1950s he was well known in theatrical circles; in one case, renowned actor James Earl Jones was his understudy.
In 1959 Richards’s friend Sidney Poitier convinced him to direct an important Broadway play, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic story A Raisin in the Sun. The first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun. explores the poignant issues of segregation, thwarted ambition, and family tensions. It ran for 530 performances and made its stars and director famous. In the wake of that success. Richards began teaching drama at Hunter College and New York University.
Soon Richards was known for his ability to develop young talent, and in 1966 he was named director of the prestigious playwrights’ conference at the O’Neill Theater. New York Times reporter Hilary De Vries maintained that under Richards’s leadership, the conference “became the model for several theater and film workshops, including Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.” Richards was also active as a director of repertory theater, dividing his interests between new plays and the classic works of such giants as Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and William Shakespeare.
In 1979, Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti asked Richards to head both the Yale School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theater. The appointment surprised some in the theater community who hardly expected a supposedly hidebound Ivy League university to hire a black man. Richards told the Detroit Free Press that he was not shocked at all to receive the call. “I had been an advocate of training for writers and actors for many years, at NYU and the O’Neill,” he commented. “I had engaged myself in the field and was known as an involved person.… I never looked at it as a minority hiring. I knew the position and knew I was as qualified as anybody in the country. It seemed a natural thing from Bart Giamatti’s and everybody from Yale’s point of view. It was only later you read the headlines about ‘first Ivy League black dean.’”
Richards’s appointment to Yale was initially a five-year contract—the standard contract for university deans. When the first five year contract expired, he was kept on for a second five year term, and then—in an almost unprecedented move—his tenure was extended another two years. He ended up serving twelve years in a position that usually lasts only five, and most observers agree that his work at Yale was distinguished. De Vries, for instance, asserted that Richards “cemented the standing of the school by transforming it into the most prestigious professional drama training program in the country. He increased the number of minority students and faculty members and reoriented the repertory theater from an avant-garde, director-dominated company into a writer’s theater with a commitment to social concerns.”
A number of famous plays had their debut performances at the Yale Repertory Theater under Richards’s direction. These include South African playwright Fugard’s ‘Master Harold’… And the Boys and two Pulitzer Prize-winning works by Wilson, Fences and The Piano Lesson. All of these plays eventually went to Broadway for long and lucrative runs. The Yale Repertory Theater also attracted a number of notable actors while Richards was in residence, including James Earl Jones, Glenn Close, Jason Robards, and Colleen Dewhurst. As a training ground for would-be actors, directors, and writers, the work was rigorous and the hours long. Richards told the New York Times : “I started out to make the kind of school that I would have liked to have gone to. Training people—creating a bridge into the profession—that’s what I consider valuable.”
Richards certainly created a “bridge into the profession” for Wilson. A former poet, Wilson received his first major notice as a playwright through the summer conference at the O’Neill theater. Richards was particularly struck by the voices in Wilson’s work—although separated by a generation, both of the men grew up poor and black in large Northern cities. Richards told the Chicago Tribune that when he read Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he realized at once that he wanted to direct the piece. “I knew the people in that play,” Richards said. “I had lived among them; I heard their voices and the rhythms of their speech. There was such an authenticity of character; they were articulating my feelings, my thoughts. August’s concerns were my own; they were about my life.”
What followed was one of the most fruitful partnerships in American theater in the 1980s. Richards directed not only Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but also Wilson’s subsequent works, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running. All five plays eventually went to Broadway, and in 1986 Richards won an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for his direction of Fences. Richards told the Chicago Tribune that the most important thing about Wilson’s work “is what he has taught us in forming an understanding of life in this country. And no matter what he does in the future, that will stay with us.”
Richards ended his association with Yale in 1991. He told the Detroit Free Press that he plans to do more directing, since so much of his time at Yale was spent “giving other directors the chance to do the things I wanted to do—establishing relationships with younger playwrights.” Although past the retirement age, Richards has no plans to give up working. His wife, Barbara Davenport, is an actress and playwright, and his two grown sons are both engaged in creative pursuits in the United States and abroad.
The dynamic Richards continues to work at the O’Neill Theater, and he is also on the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1990 he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. The director told the Orlando Sentinel : “What is exciting about theater to me is it’s live communication. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s not just communication from stage to audience, but audience to audience. It creates a sense of community. A playwright is someone who goes down the street, taps a stranger on the shoulder and tells him to come to that building on the corner at 8 p.m. He says, ‘I have something to say to you that’s more important than anything that you have to do, something you can’t interrupt with a trip to the refrigerator.’”
Richards told the New York Times that directing has its own rewards. “The satisfaction for a director,” he said, “is that you put it all together and watch somebody else take off with it. As a director you stand on the ground and say, ‘Look at that thing go.’”
Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, February 11, 1990.
New York Times, June 30, 1991.
Orlando Sentinel, May 26, 1988; February 4, 1990; July 22, 1990.
Washington Post, November 11, 1990.
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