Ex-dean Richards wins Gish award

Legendary director Lloyd Richards, former dean of the Yale School of Drama, will take the stage himself Wednesday at New York City’s Hudson Theatre. Instead of acting, Richards will receive one of his field’s highest honors.

Richards, who made history as the first black director on Broadway, will be awarded this year’s Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts Wednesday. He will receive a silver medallion and approximately $200,000 at the ceremony.

The Gish Prize was established in 1994 in honor of actresses Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Past recipients include Frank Gehry, Ingmar Bergman, Bob Dylan, Isabel Allende and Arthur Miller. Jennifer Tipton, a professor and lighting design adviser at the Yale Drama School, won the prize last year.

Richards said he was shocked to learn he won the award.

“It renders one close to speechless,” he said. “My mouth never seems to stop moving. But I could be speechless.”

Richards became the first black director to direct a play on Broadway in 1959 with “A Raisin in the Sun.” The play, which starred Sidney Poitier, earned Richards the first of six Tony nominations.

Twenty years later, Richards was named dean of the Yale School of Drama, a position he held for an unprecedented 12 years.

Richards said that Yale provided him a good opportunity to bring together his interests in directing and teaching as well as to shape the acting program.

“I can imagine that each dean creates his own school. I attempted to create the school I would have liked to have gone to. My dream school,” Richards said.

Richards said he tried to get socially conscious works performed at Yale. During his time as dean, the Yale Repertory Theatre debuted performances of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold — and the Boys,” a play about racial tension in South Africa.

Drama school Dean James Bundy said Richards’ influence extends to national theater.

“[Richards is] one of a handful of American theater artists who have had a profound impact on new work, on the institutional and commercial theaters, and on the training of the artists who are the leaders in our field today,” Bundy said. “It is an extraordinary record of accomplishment.”

Richards said one of the main focuses of his career has been the discovery and promotion of new playwrights. Richards won a Tony award for directing in 1987, for a premiere of a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

Richards also attended the National Playwright’s Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford for more than 30 years.

The recipient of the Gish Prize is selected by a committee of leaders in the arts community. Richards served as chairman of the committee in the past but says he never expected to receive the honor himself.

“One hopes that something like that could happen to you but you don’t even dare think that it could,” Richards said.

Richards also serves on the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Arts and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1990.

Last summer, he directed a Zora Neale Hurston production in Central Park. Richards is currently consulting on Ozzie Davis’ “A Last Dance for Sibyl” as well as teaching at Rutgers University, the Actors’ Studio, and the Actors’ Center.

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