Williamstown's Ritchie heading west

Michael Ritchie will be trading bug repellent for sunblock as he switches producing jobs, moving from the bucolic setting of the Massachusetts Berkshires for the big-city atmosphere of the Left Coast.

But before the 46-year-old producer of the Williamstown Theater Festival takes over the reins of Los Angeles’ Center Theater from Gordon Davidson in January, one question remains: Whither Williamstown?

Ritchie, a self-taught former stage manager, was a dark-horse choice when he took over the Williamstown Theater Fest eight years ago after such notables artistic directors as Jon Jory and Daniel Sullivan passed.

“I was the last man standing,” he says from the fest’s off-season offices on 42nd Street. During Ritchie’s tenure, he further bolstered the summer theater’s reputation as a prestigious venue for actors, a desirable retreat for directors, a nurturing ground for writers and — especially under Ritchie — a producer of new plays and surprising revivals that have had a life far beyond the northwest corner of the state.

Ritchie’s exit after his ninth summer comes at a difficult time for the Tony Award-winning theater.

Its 50th-anni season this summer will conclude with the closing of the longtime home of the 10-week fest: the 520-seat Adams Memorial Theater. Next year, Williams College, which houses the fest, will open a $60 million, 600-seat theater and convert the Adams into a smaller 250-seat house.

Many Williamstown vets see the loss of WTF’s 96-seat Nikos Theater — named for longtime a.d. Nikos Psacharopoulos, who died in 1989 — in the construction project as a potential problem for Williamstown’s new leadership. Workshop productions of new plays, which had a safe home at the intimate Nikos, next will year have to find far larger audiences to fill the new second stage.

Though the fest’s new leader isn’t likely to be announced until later in the summer season –presumably before the 50th-anniversary gala on Aug. 28 — interviews continue by a search committee operating without a head-hunting consultant.

Said to be among those under consideration are former Hartford Stage artistic director Mark Lamos, Lincoln Center casting director Daniel Swee, actor-directors Roger Rees and James Naughton, Signature Theater’s Eric Schaeffer, former Long Wharf Theater a.d. Doug Hughes, Peter Manning of New York Stage & Film and longtime WTF second-in-command Jenny Gersten (daughter of Bernard Gersten, exec producer of Lincoln Center Theater).

No matter who gets the job, most agree Ritchie will be a tough act to follow. For one thing, he has run surpluses in all but one of his years at WTF — 2001 — and its endowment grew from $900,000 to $4 million in pledges.

The Worcester, Mass.-born-Ritchie came from a background of stage managing with a respectable, albeit modest resume to head a $3 million theater complex. But his organizational skills, easy-going personality and connections (he has been married since 1985 to actress Kate Burton and has developed close friendships with many theatrical heavyhitters) has made him one of the more successful producers in the nonprofit field.

It was these skills as an eclectic and multitasking producer, rather than as an artistic director with a particular aesthetic, that landed him the Los Angeles job.

“Michael is incredibly charismatic,” says director Christopher Ashley, who staged Paul Rudnick’s “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” at the fest before it moved Off Broadway.

“He has a little bit of that Bill Clinton thing of making you feel that you’re the person he really wants to talk to. He makes everyone I know willing to work really hard for no money, which is an incredible skill.”

“Michael gives you a great confidence and the belief that anything is possible,” says director Michael Greif, who staged such large-cast plays as “Street Scene” and “Once in a Lifetime” at the fest.

Indeed, large-scale projects like “Dead End,” “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Crucible” were part of Williamstown’s reputation during Ritchie’s tenure, taking advantage of the fest’s association with the college and its ability to populate a stage with actors who have not yet earned their Equity cards.

Though Ritchie’s tastes in plays were wide, he showed a partiality for American plays, especially “lost” plays of the early 20th century such as “The Big Knife,” “Johnny on the Spot,” “Camino Real” and “The Rainmaker.”

He also embraced living writers, notably Arthur Miller, who was featured in his first season at the fest with productions of “All My Sons” and the American premiere of “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.” That was followed by the fest-to-Broadway transfers of Miller’s “The Price” and “The Man Who Had All the Luck.”

New works produced in Ritchie’s tenure that have gone on to other theaters include Warren Leight’s “The Glimmer Brothers,” Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” A.R. Gurney’s “Far East,” Jon Robin Baitz’s “End of the Day,” David Rabe’s “Corners” and John Guare’s “Chaucer in Rome.”

Ritchie saw to it that Williamstown welcomed back its extended “family” of artists from over the decades, including Blythe Danner, Austin Pendleton, Maria Tucci, Olympia Dukakis and James Naughton.

He also wooed a new generation of talents including Gwyneth Paltrow, David Schwimmer, Chris O’Donnell, Woody Harrelson and Ethan Hawke.

Indeed, the presence of these younger artists has given the fest that sought-after “buzz” that marketers dream of. (Paltrow followed her Oscar win with a starring role in the soldout “As You Like It” at the fest; Schwimmer starred in “The Glimmer Brothers” mid-“Friends.”)

But Ritchie is sensitive to the labeling of the fest as a “star-driven theater,” saying the high-profile names are sprinkled among scores of others. He challenges critics to point out how the “names” he has used were miscast.

“You hire them first because they can play the part,” he says. Still, he adds he is well aware that they will give the theater — located about three hours from Broadway — some “destination” appeal.

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