Friends and colleagues will recall the late director, who played an active role nurturing writers and others at The O'Neill Center, where he was artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference 1968-99. Many of the scores of actors, directors, designers and playwrights who worked with Richards at the O'Neill over the years lovingly referred to him as "Papa."
The director, producer, performer and presenter died June 29, 2006, on his 87th birthday. Among his achievements: He broke ground in American theatre by staging A Raisin in the Sun and the plays of August Wilson.
Richards served as the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference — the O'Neill Center's founding program — for 32 years. Richards' legacy is his discovery and development of the early work of Athol Fugard, John Guare, Lee Blessing, John Patrick Shanley, Derek Wolcott, Wendy Wasserstein and August Wilson, helping give them a voice on the American stage.
"He pioneered the need to take emerging playwrights away from the demands and distractions of commercial theatre and into a retreat setting," according to the O'Neill Center in Waterford, CT. Wendy C. Goldberg, in her second year as artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference in 2006 stated, "Lloyd Richards' vision, passion, and nurturing of artists are the benchmarks of our work here at the O'Neill. As we embark upon the 42nd season of the National Playwrights Conference, we dedicate our work to his spirit — we are here because of him, and our work will be reflective of his energy and creativity. He will be profoundly missed."
Richards, praised for his ability to guide and edit the work of the poetry-prone August Wilson, won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for August Wilson's Fences, which was also named Best Play that year. He also directed Broadway productions of Wilson's Seven Guitars, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson.
Richards was born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in Detroit. His father died when he was nine. His mother became blind when he was a youngster, so he worked to support the family. He studied at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and stopped his studies to serve in the Army Air Force during World War II.
Richards pursued radio and theatre at Wayne when he returned after the war, and founded a theatre group in Detroit with classmates. He moved to New York City in 1947 to act, landing roles (on Broadway in The Egghead in 1957 and Freight in 1950), but he leaned toward directing as a future that had more prospects. He returned to Detroit to direct at the Northland Playhouse in the 1950s.
A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry's 1959 cultural pulse-taking — a play about an urban black family's conflicts when faced with the possibilities of moving out of the ghetto — was Richards' first Broadway directing credit. A black director directing the work of a black woman playwright on the Great White Way was a watershed moment in American theatre.
His other Broadway directing credits included The Long Dream, The Moon Besieged, the musicals I Had a Ball and The Yearling and Paul Robeson.
In 1966, Richards was named head of the actor training program at New York University's School of the Arts. He was also professor of theatre and cinema at Hunter College in New York City.
In a fertile time in the 1980s, he was artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre, which, on his watch with colleague Ben Mordecai, mounted pre-Broadway stagings of The Cemetery Club; Ah, Wilderness!; Long Day's Journey Into Night (1988); A Walk in the Woods; Blood Knot; Master Harold…and the boys (1982); A Lesson From Aloes; as well as the Wilson plays that he directed on Broadway (all but Seven Guitars played New Haven).
Richards' honors include the Drama Desk, the Pioneer Award of AUDELCO, the Frederick Douglass Award and (in 1993) the National Medal of the Arts. He also served as President of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
He retired from his posts as dean of the Yale University School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Rep in 1991, but remained professor emeritus at Yale.
The life of Richards was remembered at a memorial service Oct. 3, 2006, at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
He directed original productions of A Raisin in the Sun starring Sidney Poitier; Seven Guitars, Fences, The Piano Lesson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Two Trains Running by August Wilson; Master Harold…and the boys; Paul Robeson; and produced A Walk in the Woods starring Sam Waterston, Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey Into Night starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, which played in repertory.
Richards was a Tony Award-winning American director who worked on Broadway, in regional theatre and in the academic community, shepherding the work of August Wilson and other new playwrights.