Ritchie ’10 enters family trade with major acting ‘debut’

Monday, September 24, 2007

Two generations of Brown actors appeared in an acclaimed performance of “The Corn is Green” at the Williamstown Theater Festival this summer in Williamstown, Mass. Morgan Ritchie ’10, the son of Broadway actress and “Grey’s Anatomy” star Kate Burton ’79, joined his mother onstage in what Ritchie described as his debut performance.

In the play, Burton starred as an Englishwoman named Miss Moffat who inherits a house in Wales and opens a school for boys working in the local mines. On the verge of disillusionment, she discovers a spark of intellect in Ritchie’s character, Morgan Evans, and devotes herself to his education.

According to Ritchie, sharing the bill with his mom was comforting.

“I was very, very nervous about doing this … I don’t have a lot of formal training, and Williamstown is a pretty well-known regional theater” with “incredibly talented people,” Ritchie said. “I would sort of get a little bit overwhelmed, but having her there was what could bring me back from the brink. She could calm me down.”

Though Ritchie and Burton both appeared in the 1996 film “August” with Anthony Hopkins, as well as in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2004, Ritchie said “The Corn is Green” marked a turning point his relationship with his mother.

“This was the first time we played opposite each other and had to develop a relationship onstage,” Ritchie said. “My mom and I are actually very different actors,” he added, saying Burton’s formal training leads to a consistent approach. “I’m everywhere,” Ritchie said. “I’m all over the place and then I sort of pull it together.”

Ritchie described “The Corn is Green,” a 1938 play by Emlyn Williams, as a “lost classic” and “a whirlwind of action,” with numerous entrances and exits, and “very few moments of great tension.”

“It’s a comedy in the sort of traditional sense of that it has a happy ending,” Ritchie said. “But it is also a comedy in a modern sense … even though there are many dramatic elements it’s geared towards laughter,” Ritchie said. He said his character is the least humorous in the cast, but the one that develops the most. “When he first comes onstage, (Morgan Evans) speaks very broken English with a very heavy Welsh accent … which is a bizarre accent. My family’s Welsh and still I think it’s a crazy sounding accent,” Ritchie said. Two years elapse over the course of the play, and Morgan “develops his ability to speak throughout the show,” which culminates in a monologue in the third act.

“The challenge was sort of demonstrating his intellectual growth,” Ritchie said. He said the “The Corn is Green” maintains its relevance today, though the play is staged infrequently.

“There is a real emotional undercurrent to the play and we wanted to find where that emotion was,” Ritchie said.

The performance ran Aug. 1-12 at Williamstown and attracted the attention of the New York Times, which published a positive review on Aug. 7. “There is a chance – fingers crossed, looking to God, hoping – that we may actually move to Broadway,” Ritchie said.

Ritchie’s famous family sparked his interest in theater at an early age. He said his mother – the daughter of legendary Welsh actor Richard Burton – gave him a “real sense of artistry about the theater and the art form and the technique.” His father, who is currently artistic director of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, helped him appreciate the “practical side of the theater.”

“My dad ran Williamstown for a few years, so that’s where I spent my summers,” Ritchie said. He was cast in his first play, “The Rivals” at Williamstown at age eight. “I’m always so nervous and hesitant about seeming like a crazy actor because of the, like, horror stories my dad tells me about people he’s had to deal with,” he said.

His parents met during the 1982 Broadway production of “Present Laughter,” where his father was stage manager and his mother starred alongside George C. Scott. Ritchie said his family provided “a real sense of love and respect for the theater” but no formal training. “I have an advantage in that I sort of know the vocabulary of theater and how a rehearsal room works,” he said. When he made the decision to pursue a career in acting, Ritchie said he realized “if I was going to do it, I was really going to have to make my own name.”

“My mom made a concerted effort … not to dissuade me from doing theater, but not to surround me with theater all the time,” Ritchie said.

He said she was hesitant when he told her, at 14, that he wanted to be an actor. “We stayed up literally almost all night arguing about it.”

With a role in Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” at age 17, Ritchie reaffirmed both his commitment to acting professionally and his mother’s confidence in his ability. “She saw how much I loved acting and remembered what it was like for her to realize how much she loved acting,” Ritchie said, explaining that Burton “ran into trouble with her father when she wanted to act.”

“I had to kind of fight her on that, but she let me do it,” Ritchie joked. “I’m real stubborn.”

After the excitement of the summer, Ritchie said returning to Brown was “a great relief.”

“Brown has a fabulous undergrad theater program,” Ritchie said. He is enrolled in an acting and playwriting class this semester. Though he has not yet committed to a concentration in theater, Ritchie said the opportunity to “study theater a lot” while exploring a variety of fields through Brown’s open curriculum influenced his decision to attend the University.

Ritchie has not yet appeared in a play on campus, but said “the goal for this year is to get a little more involved in the production stuff.”

Either way, Ritchie praised the emphasis on “figuring out who you are as an actor” in the Brown theater community, which he described as “filled with good people, good teachers, good opportunities.”

“People here are really talented and can surprise you with what they can do,” Ritchie said. “So even with this little thing I have, I’m still intimidated by some of the others actors here and still feel like I need to rise up to their bar. I definitely don’t think that because I did this show it’s going to be easy for me to do stuff here.”