Laird Harold Williamson, who devoted his career in theatre as actor and director to deep investigation and magical imagining of plays from across the centuries, died on Jan. 29 in Seattle, Wash. He was 82.
Laird practiced the art of theatre with a foundation of knowledge from exhaustive research into the world of each play, and with a wizard’s magic for bringing the characters to life through intense collaborations with actors and artists of all disciplines. His ingenious approach to every project was born from the depth of his preparation and the wilds of his imagination.
After graduate school, most of Laird’s work was staged in Oregon, California, and Colorado at four resident theatres: Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts (PCPA), American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) and Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC). Shuttling between them was a career-long practice.
Together with projects in Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York, Laird staged more than 80 productions—actually, more than 100, if you count repeats and annual remounts of A Christmas Carol.
He influenced more than one generation of theatre artists and touched hundreds of thousands of theatre patrons with flights of fancy that laced dramatic text, both classic and contemporary, with vivid images and resonating undertones.
Laird’s interest in acting was evident as early as the 1950s, when, in high school outside Chicago, he was at the center of all things drama, including summer performances. After university and graduate school, Laird’s early transition from acting to directing was forecast by a close university classmate who knew of Laird’s inclination to explain each character’s backstory and inner dialogue to his fellow cast members.
Following a stream of leading roles and teaching, Laird’s professional career began as the nonprofit regional theatre movement rolled west in the early ’60s. His body of work spanned five decades with bookends of plays by Shakespeare, both at OSF in Ashland: as Edmund in King Lear (1964) at the start, and as director of Romeo and Juliet in 2012.
In 1968 Laird joined PCPA in Santa Maria, Calif., as actor, director, and teacher, which began a 16-year relationship, with a steady diet of at least three directing projects each year and a broad reach of experience across centuries of writing for the stage. PCPA was born out of relationships drawn from the wellspring of the Drama Department at University of Texas in Austin. Laird’s beginning at PCPA ensured a career-long bond with fellow graduate student and PCPA founder Donovan Marley. The Texas connection also spawned a USO tour to the Mediterranean with UT drama students in 1969, directed by Laird.
PCPA was the foundation for all that followed in Laird’s long career. These years added regular experience with Shakespeare’s plays; a few choices would repeat down the line in Ashland or Denver. Laird’s attraction to wonder and magic was in full force with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1975), played under the stars in PCPA’s new second theatre in Solvang.
Laird’s presence and impact at PCPA was profound, amplified by the energy of producing and teaching with a team of professionals and a small army of aspiring artists. The artists and students that Laird worked with and influenced have populated stages nationwide for more than a generation. There was shared time with OSF (1972-74), when Laird returned to the festival for a three-season residency that included his Ashland debut as a director with Love’s Labour’s Lost (1972) and a turn onstage as Iago in Othello (1973).
In 1975, Laird began a 30-year relationship with American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, briefly as an actor and then exclusively as a director. These decades included 14 directing credits of plays by authors other than the Bard, such as Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1979), Michel de Ghelderode’s Pantagleize (1980), and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1999).
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, adapted by Laird and Dennis Powers and directed by Laird, was repeated for 26 holiday seasons (1978-2004). All annual productions were either under Laird’s hand or directed by others with his original staging.
His first directing assignment at ACT was Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1975), which toured with the company to the Soviet Union in 1976. Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes (2006) completed Laird’s decades-long span of residencies at ACT.
Laird took a pause from back and forth between San Francisco and the Central Coast in 1983 to serve as PCPA’s artistic director when Donovan Marley departed to lead the DCTC. After one season as artistic director at PCPA, Laird returned to just directing in a 20-year relationship with DCTC as resident director, with more back and forth to San Francisco and Ashland.
Work in Denver ran parallel to his time at ACT, and added 14 more directing credits, plus a reincarnation of A Christmas Carol for 14 more annual iterations. Two decades in Denver afforded a return to Shakespeare including productions of Coriolanus (1987), Twelfth Night (1991), and The Winter’s Tale (1999).
In the ’80s and ’90s, Laird’s reach as a freelance director picked up, with a classic comedy at BAM, two projects at Intiman Theatre, one at Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, a musical at Seattle Repertory Theatre, two productions at the Guthrie , three at the Old Globe, two more at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, and a new play at San Jose Repertory Theatre.
In 1998, Laird returned to OSF with an acclaimed production of Pericles that was videotaped and archived at the Lincoln Center Library. This last term at OSF spanned 14 years, alongside Laird’s final years at DCTC and ACT, adding nine more directing credits, including Calderon’s Life Is a Dream (2001), four more by Shakespeare, and an open-air staging of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (2006).
Libby Appel, who was OSF artistic director when Laird began working there, recalled her first encounter of his work: his production of Pericles at the Denver Theater Center. “I was enchanted by the work—so clear, beautiful—really delicate and magical,” Appel said. When she took the helm of OSF in 1995, she recalled, “I began a campaign to bring Laird to Ashland. He had worked for OSF for many seasons 20 years prior as an actor and director, and I think he was reluctant to return. I begged, pleaded, charmed, and promised, and he finally gave way and returned with another astounding production of Pericles. From that point on, Laird came back each season, always directing a play he passionately wanted to do.”
Appel continued, “Laird had an exquisite imagination. He would bring large cardboard abstract collages to design conferences picturing objects, colors, textures, images that touched him and made him think about the play. These images inspired his design team and his company. His productions always shone with a unique, magical ‘Laird touch.’ He loved the ‘big’ shows—epic in size. Nothing daunted Laird. He was courageous, a truth teller, a lover of the power of storytelling.”
Indeed Laird tackled most of the Shakespearean canon with a special aptitude for the (less frequently produced) late romances, which well suited his sense of wonder, rich imagination, and magical flights of fancy. A staff writer at the Santa Maria Times commented that Laird “takes a play which has troubles making itself clear and turns it this way and that, making it come alive.”
In a 2000 interview, Laird said, “It takes me a long time to read a play, because as I’m reading, I’ll just go off—I start to see the characters moving, begin to imagine what they’re wearing, where it is, what the era is, what the feeling of the era is.” About Pericles, Laird said, “I love the magic of it, the wonderful odyssey of the whole thing.”
The reach and volume of Laird’s directing credits—the scope of work from across centuries of playwriting, the range of history and genre—defined a career matched by only a few others of his generation of theatre artists.
Laird was born of Norwegian and Swedish heritage in Chicago on Dec. 13, 1937, to the former Florence Hemwall of the Pullman Railroad Company and Walter Williamson of the Chicago Fire Department. The family moved to Hayward, Wisc., in 1946, returning to Palatine, outside Chicago, just nine years later; Laird graduated from Arlington Heights High School, then went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts from Northwestern University in 1960 and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Texas in 1965.
For most of his professional career Laird’s principal residence was in San Francisco, with opportunistic visits to a home in Yachats, Ore., and weeks-long perambulations in New York, London, and Paris. Since early 2017 he was a full-time resident on the Oregon coast until the 2019 journey to recover from a fall at home carried him to Seattle.
Laird is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, Wayne and Barbara Williamson of Hayward, Wisc., and nieces Lisa Williamson of Ashland, Wisc., and Claire Balfour of Austin, Texas, and grandnephew Sasha of Ashland and three grandnieces, Nataliya of Ashland, and McKinzie and Georgia of Austin.
He leaves behind a vast family of friends, theatre colleagues, and next generation artists who will recall and share memories of Laird and his opus for a long time to come.
Ben Moore was managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre for 30 years.