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Threading the Needle

Lloyd Richards finds gold in the haystack of the American theater



He's the patron saint of the American playwright.

As a director on Broadway, he brought some of the most important work of his era to fruition, introducing the world to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson's Fences, The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars.

His social conscience as an emerging artist in the '40s and '50s led him to champion the renaissance in African-American theater.

And his greatest legacy may be the 35 years of groundbreaking work in new play development with the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, where he served from 1968 to 1999 as the Artistic Director of the center's National Playwrights Conference, uncovering and establishing playwrights like Christopher Durang, John Guare and Wendy Wasserstein.

Richards began his education pursuing a law degree at Detroit's Wayne University. "Theater was not something that reached out to black students, nor were projects selected for which black persons were needed," Richards told the Independent from his home in New York. But by the time he graduated, he was "committed to a life in the theater." Richards helped found two theater companies before a friend assured him there was a part in New York for him. He packed a footlocker, made a reservation at the YMCA and headed south.

He didn't get the part, but he survived, later landing a couple of incidental parts on Broadway and finding his niche as a teacher and director. While teaching acting, Richards met Sydney Poitier, "a struggling actor at that time," he recounted. "He had said to me once that if he ever did anything meaningful on Broadway, he wanted me to direct it." Years later, Poitier called him with a new script, A Raisin in the Sun.

"It was next to impossible to raise the money for it," Richards remembered. "A play about a black family ... the smart money said no. No way." Richards began meeting with Hansberry once a week to work on the script. "At each meeting, we'd take up a different scene and discuss it. She was wonderfu,l because she never gave you back what you asked for. She understood very clearly what your question was, and then she found her own answer to it."

Helping Hansberry solidify her script hooked him on playwright development, his focus for the next 41 years. "My whole career had been conditioned on the fact that there was no real log in the library of plays about the black experience in this country; they weren't there. Why? Because there weren't playwrights, and as a consequence, there weren't people going to the theater, and as a consequence there weren't people interested in the theater. You had to start somewhere, and it had to start with material."

His growing reputation brought Richards to direct a play in NPC's inaugural season. Within three years he was appointed as the artistic director, at which point he immediately created the NPC model that still exists.

The NPC sets to work each summer with a dozen scripts culled from nearly 1,700 submissions. Richards' vision was to keep the focus on the script. Under the old model, "we built a set, had costumes, actors were off the book, and lights -- I did one play with 125 light cues -- in four days of rehearsal," Richards recollected. "But the playwright was not hearing his play. You haven't had time to work on the play. You've just been trying to mount it. That's not a developmental process."

Richards instituted the concept of a staged reading. He stripped away the conventions of production and emphasized the process of the playwright. And he eliminated the tradition of having critics take the stage 20 minutes after a performance to critique the play with the audience while "the playwright was tearing his hair out. It wasn't about his play anymore." Richards noticed that "there were certain critics whose insights could be helpful to a playwright in his process, not as a critique but as an evaluation in the process." The result was the introduction of dramaturgy in the American theater.

Not everyone was immediately taken with the O'Neill Center model. Among the detractors was playwright Edward Albee, who once declared that the goal of play development in general was to "de-ball the plays; to castrate them; to smooth down all the rough edges so they can't cut, can't hurt. Most playwrights who write a good play write it from the beginning."

August Wilson, the most celebrated NPC alum, makes a convincing counterargument to Albee's claim that good plays are good from the start. Wilson was "discovered" by Richards and accepted by NPC after he had already been rejected five times. "I took his first play (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) to Yale and did it there," Richards recalled. Over the next 12 years, Wilson blazed a trail to Broadway that started with workshops at NPC and productions at Yale, where Richards was dean of the School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979 to 1991. Six of Wilson's plays -- including two Pulitzer Prize winners -- went to Broadway with Richards directing.

Last summer, Richards retired from his post at NPC, and he sounds wistful at the prospect of a year without 1,700 scripts filling his mailbox. "If I had spent as much time reading the great literature as I've spent reading bad plays, I'd be a very well-read person," Richards laughed. "But there's no distinction to being a very well-read person on mediocre plays. Except that, you know, it has to be done, looking for a needle in a haystack. You've got to go through the haystack."

Richards closed with his insight into the qualities that signal a script's potential for success on the stage. "Do I immediately become engaged with the people? Am I anxious to turn the page? When you want to know the next thing," he concluded, "then you know that some kind of drama has been created."

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