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A CurtainUp BerkshiresBerkshire Interview
Michael Ritchie: Producer on the Move

By Elyse Sommer

This is Michael Ritchie's ninth and last season as the Williamstown Theatre Festival's producer. While his move to another prestigious but much larger nonprofit organization -- the Center Theatre Group which encompasses the Mark Taper Forum, The Ahmanson Theatre and the Kirk Douglas Theatre, -- marks a major step up the career ladder, it means forsaking the chance to see the exciting changes that are just getting underway. As for Ritchie's nine year run as the Festival's producer, he has many achievements to look back on with pride. This includes many colorful, star-studded revivals and new plays, many of which moved on to other non-profit theaters like Lincoln Center or to Broadway.

Our June 24th meeting with Mr. Ritchie took place in his office off the lobby of the Adams Memorial Theatre. It's a modest space, without sleek executive desk or other trappings to without a fancy executive desk or other acouterments associated with "power" jobs. The walk-through ante-room was occupied by a single assistant and computer.

Ritchie arrived promptly -- in fact a few minutes early, exuding the energy, enthusiasm of a man who at forty-seven is at the top of his game and ready to meet the new challenges facing him. He's a tall, slim man, far better looking than the picture on this page, with a shock of hair that he runs his hands through frequently. With long and happily married couples often taking on some of each other's habits, it was interesting to see that hand-through-hair gesture used in a more actorly fashion by his wife Kate Burton in Theresa Rebeck's new play Water's Edge, -- a fitting follow up to our talk since Burton, like Ritchie, has left her mark on the Festival. (I don't think I'm breaking the Nikos Stage's non-reviewing rule when I tell you that she, as well as her colleagues on stage, gave terrific performances).

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Michael Ritchie
Michael Ritchie
CurtainUp's Questions to Michael Ritchie

Is this move from Williamstown to the Center Theater complex in Los Angeles something that's been in the the result of a long process?

Well not all that long. I was approached before last summer but it was then just about adding my name to a big list. So I said okay put my name on the list and didn't think anything of it. When it was narrowed down to eight names and I was called down for an interview then it became more serious when I knew it was a smaller group. After I went out there in September for my interviews and I really knew it was something I wanted, things went very fast.

What decided you to make the move?

To produce year around was a big thing. I went into this job to do plays but that's here for ten weeks and the rest of the year I do a lot of other things-- the administrative work of planning, reading plays-- things I enjoy but the chance to produce year round was very appealing.

What will be the chief difference at ghe Ahmanson and Mark Taper Forum besides producing year round?

out there Los Angeles is a much better theater town than it ever gets credit for-- much better -- and there's a lot of good theater out there. . (Editor's Note: Something readers know from CurtainUp's - LA page). I'll be going to the granddaddy of the Los Angeles theaters.

Where your main challenge will be. . .?

It's been under stewardship of one man [Gordon Davidson] who has had some wonderful productions, picked up Pulitzer, and some Tony awards winning plays and shows that have moved. The trick is going to be to have my own particular taste and feel for the theater to audiences who have been used to one particular style and taste for nearly forty years.

The great thing to me also is that the Ahmanson is a 2200 seat house. I've never dealt with anything that big or with a house that's a mixed producing and presenting house for things like Broadway tours. I've never presented and seeing what's going on and booking into there-- the logistics of that is a challenge The audience includes subscribers so you still have to be careful about what you since it impacts on their dollars and cents. It's also a mix of producing our own shows and present other shows. Sounds like a lot of musicals?

Well a house as big as the Ahmanson leans towards musicals but I will be doing some pre-Broadway shows there. It'll all be very interesting and the runs in both theaters will be longer--8 weeks on average.

Interesting too is the new Kirk Douglas Theater for development of new plays and education in Culver City. This is an area doing a major redevelopment and we're part of that. Culver City an independent city but really a part of greater LA.

What will the educational outreach involve?

It means looking at universities and the viability of working with them.

How big a part will fund raising play in the job?

A big part! It will involve $6 to 12 million a year depending on where you in any year or campaign.

Will you also be directing some of the plays you produce?

No interest in directing. I'd be a bad director.

So if you've spent your working life in the theater but never as an actor or director, how did you get involved?

I had no training in the theater. I did not study it but just did it. In college I studied sociology and never took a theater course in my life. I got some jobs in summer stock it was all hands on learning.

So you advice to others?

Just go out there and do it. It's not the easiest path and I know I had a lot of lucky breaks When I got a job that I had no training in I just had to get good and work very, very hard, learning what I needed as I got a job.

(I should insert a comment here that, despite his preference , for remaining backstage, he can, when necessary, step into the spotlight. Ritchie got on stage and with ease and humor explained why one of the pivotal roles in Philadelphia Here I Come was being played by an actor with script in hand. Readers might want to check out my review of that play here since that plays also featured the talented Austin Lysy who plays Kate Burton's college drop out son in TheWater's Edge--E.S. ).

How do you feel about missing the step involved in seeing major physical changes completed -- leaving Williamstown as the the new theater construction is just getting started

It was a difficult decision. I feel that I'm leaving Williamstown too early, but I'd rather leave too early than too late. In next five to ten years I probably would have done my best work, but I was afraid of having another 10 or 15 years ahead of me and feeling stale, so this was an opportunity to reinvigorate myself after fifteen years here-- nine years as a producer and before that as stage manager.

How does your family feel about this move?

They're excited and see it as an adventure-- that includes my 6-year-year old daughter. But there will be a year-and-a-half overlap when I'll commute back and forth while Kate and the kids will stay in our New York apartment so that my son who's going into his junior year of high school can graduate from the school he now attends. Even after that we'll keep the apartment because Kate wants to be able to work in New York and we both have lived there a long time. She was brought up there and I've lived there for twenty-five years. Does the Hollywood factor and life provoke any anxiety?

No, because I have so many friends, particularly actors, who have gone into TV and film and they're the same-- actors are actors. I've spent a lot of time in LA so I have a fairly good sense of what that world is and that group has been supportive of the theater in the past. Kate being an actress, Los Angeles has always been on the table with us.

I will have to get more used to the day to day life -- the car culture, the culture of the weather the youth culture. . . (My you're arriving pretty young brought a hearty and a disclaimer of "I might argue with you on that").

Actually, there's been a big spur in downtown development with new business, restaurants and a lot of loft buying. The buses run and theres a subway that runs through downtown. There's a feel that its a good place to go to.

What are you going to miss most about Williamstown?

I'm going to miss the mix of the kids who are 21 and come up here and find themselves with people who are at the peak of their careers. It's exciting to see a kid at a rehearsal meeting with someone who seems like such an icon. I'll miss the idea of 400 people coming together for such a short period of time. They arrive and then just start creating theater.

Except for that summer build-up your Williamstown staff is much smaller than the one you'll be working with in Los Angeles?

Much. Williamstown has a year round staff of six -- three here and three in New York. In Los Angeles I'll have 200 -- one of best staffs in country for institutional theater. Instead of a triangular situation in which I do everything, the business side is much more controlled in Los Angeles, with a managing director and an artistic director so there's a safety net to make it easier to concentrate on the producing/artistic end.

What about your successor? Have you been involved in the search?

I wasn't asked to be involved and didn't want to be as I feel that sitting in this chair my recocmmendation would carry too much weight. I do know the search is going on and that they've met with candidates. They will probably announce who it will be in the Fall but they're not obligated to do so and I don't know if they will. I would be relieved but there's no deadline. I do know that it's going to be a great time for someone coming into financially stable situation, and strong board of trustees.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Not getting a peptic ulcer.

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