It is not the kind of theater Elizabeth Taylor would rush to join. No star gets top billing, performers are listed in order of appearance, everyone does his or her own hair and makeup, and nearly all the actors share dressing rooms. The money is Equity scale: $375 a week, even if you got a million for your last movie. “Nobody’s interested much in razzle-dazzle here,” says Blythe Danner. Instead, the play’s the thing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. And the man most responsible for this remarkable muzzling of theatrical egos is Nickolas Konstantin Athanasios Psacharopoulos VII, 53. As the festival’s artistic director for 27 years, he has shaped a small troupe of actors with a budget that started at $256 into the nation’s preeminent summer theater company.
Situated on the Williams (Mass.) College campus in the Berkshire mountains, the theater is a mecca for the stars and the starstruck alike. Danner has returned for her 10th consecutive season, and other WTF vets include Lee Grant, Richard Chamberlain, Richard Dreyfuss and Sam Waterston. On the boards this summer are Christopher Reeve, Ken Howard, Christopher Walken, Sigourney Weaver, Edward Herrmann, Geraldine Fitzgerald and E.G. Marshall. While the usual summer-stock offering is seldom heavier than Forty Carats, Williamstown introduces audiences to the moodier worlds of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Anton Chekhov—sandwiched between classic comedies and an occasional musical. Sellouts are common, and so is critical acclaim. When this summer’s season, the 29th, opened last month with Holiday, a Philip Barry drawing-room comedy starring Danner, Howard, Reeve and Williamstown newcomer Marisa Berenson, Today show critic Gene Shalit burbled, “This production could run three years on Broadway…if any producer could afford the cast.”
Nikos, as his colleagues call him, fortunately has no such problem. He is the Godfather of the entire operation and has created a theatrical setting where “everyone defers to him,” says actor Ed Genest. “This is his baby.” With his splash of silvery hair and Pekingese face, Nikos is himself a one-man show offstage. On opening night of Holiday he accented his tuxedo with a Greek sailor’s cap and handmade leather sandals. On a typical day he darts around the theater complex barking orders to his eager minions, haggling over budgets, approving posters, and holding forth at seminars with teen apprentices who pay $1,300 to work there each summer. Explains Nikos, “Theater is really one man’s vision and 250 people work for it. I check everything. Coming to the theater is a pilgrimage. I have stopped people who don’t behave and said, ‘Please go back to your pizza parlor.’ I shouldn’t do that, but we have an image.” Nikos fosters the family image among his actors with an opening-night ritual: He sends each a similar basket of flowers and visits them backstage, bearing a loving cup of champagne. Everyone sips before the curtain rises.
Those who know Nikos best describe him as “generous” and “inspiring” as well as “shrewd” and “slippery.” His greatest talent may be juggling his performers—soothing the hurt feelings of those who are not cast one summer and then luring them back the next as he puts together his dream casts. For his 1974 production of The Seagull, which later aired on PBS, Nikos convinced Danner and Frank Langella to star in the drama. After both had agreed, Frank called Blythe and said, “Nikos told me he had you but wouldn’t do it without me,” and Blythe replied, “That’s funny. He told me the opposite.” “He really is a Machiavelli in some ways,” observes associate director Steve Lawson, a 15-year WTF veteran. “When he wants to turn on the charm and entice you into doing something, he can. It’s like Brigadoon—every summer a voice starts calling you to come here to renew yourself and your craft.”
Nikos’ loyalty to his “family” of actors is reciprocated. “Nikos is a constant and that’s very attractive to actors who lead a gypsy life,” says Reeve, who first came to Williamstown as a 15-year-old apprentice. “This is where you can practice at a relatively low risk, but it’s not a license for Donny Osmond to come and play Othello.” In fact, his actors’ allegiance can take some surprising turns. One summer, after they had finished their leading roles in The Front Page and Candida, Reeve and Danner asked to stay on, so Nikos offered them roles in The Cherry Orchard with Colleen Dewhurst. As the curtain rose on opening night, there were Danner and Reeve as the maid and butler serving the star. “I turn down a good deal of lucrative work to come here,” notes Danner. “You do commercial things to get your barn or your car, you come here to work. I would not have the career I have if it weren’t for Nikos. He has pushed me into areas, such as The Seagull, I was afraid to go.”
Born in Athens, Nikos came to America at 17 in 1947 after his family’s shipping fortune had been diminished by World War II. He majored in art at Oberlin College, where he made his directing debut with a musical written by classmate John (Cabaret) Kander. The summer after Nikos’ graduation he and Kander joined a group headed for Mansfield, Ohio, where they had been invited by a local Studebaker dealer to produce a play starring his daughter. WTF actor-director Tom Brennan was in the group and he recalls, “When we walked into his office he gasped, and said, ‘Didn’t you get my message? The show is off. We couldn’t get the money.’ At that point, Nikos whipped out a sketch of the leading lady’s costume and said, ‘Look at dee folds of dee dress. Your daughter ees going to be vunderfool in dee part.’ Ten minutes later we had a theater.”
Nikos continued his studies at Yale, where he earned his master of fine arts in 1954. He was teaching there when he was invited to Williamstown as an associate director in 1955. The following year he was put in charge. Since then he has overseen 227 productions and directed 79 of them. Some WTF actors complain that Nikos has become overly starstruck, while others defend the big-name policy as a means to keep his creative engine spinning. Despite his prestige he has not directed on Broadway since the forgotten 1963 Langston Hughes musical, Tambourines to Glory. He worries about forfeiting his autocracy and artistic integrity with a Broadway show. “It would be wonderful if someone gave me a play that I love, where I could be in control,” he says, “but I couldn’t make a success of something I didn’t believe in.” During the academic year he conducts acting and directing classes at Yale and in New York while also making occasional treks to Williamstown.
While his champagne tastes include fine food (he entertains graciously, often costumed in a caftan), sunny islands (he keeps a house in Greece), and the company of young actresses, none of these diverts him from his real passion: Williamstown. After the season ends with a traditional picnic, Nikos will already be plotting for next year. “Actors in New York say, ‘Oh, that’s a very small clique. Even if I was asked I wouldn’t go,’ ” says Ed Genest. “Then they get a call, and actors with 20 Broadway credits who refuse to audition for anybody else will do it for Nikos because this funny little guy with a funny accent is a legend.”