WALLA WALLA — A little known fact about Shakespeare Walla Walla’s new executive director: He had his own turn as a star in Italian film.
Many who know Ron Williams since his move to the community half a dozen or so years ago were likely to have met him through the wine industry.
For the last several years he’s worked in high-profile positions at Waterbrook Winery and, more recently, Cave B Winery on the Columbia River Gorge.
That work, it turns out, helped set the stage for a return to the arts. But long before the California native built a name in tasting rooms, he had been somewhat of a cult star overseas.
Williams was part of an Italian movie franchise that started with “The Boy in the Golden Kimono.” The movie series, directed by Fabrizio De Angelis, started in the 1980s with a different protagonist in the lead role. It was more or less an Italian version of “The Karate Kid.”
Williams became the lead — Larry Jones — in sequels that continued into the 1990s. Two decades later his latest role is the one he said he’s been building toward his entire career.
“If you had asked me as a kid what I really wanted to be when I grow up I would have said an artistic director or executive director of a community theater group,” Williams said during a warm summer morning visit on the patio at Olive Marketplace & Cafe.
The timing of his appointment is critical, founders of the nonprofit Shakespearean production organization acknowledge.
Although originally performed at the Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater, the Shakespeare Walla Walla productions were billed as the anchor event when the Gesa Power House Theatre building was revitalized two years ago. The theater had been transformed into the playhouse it is today with inspiration from Shakespeare’s own Blackfriars Theatre. The vision was led by co-owner Harry Hosey, who had been in the managing partner role since the opening.
The transformation of the theater took place because of hearty investments by Hosey, Mark Anderson, Dennis Ledford and a fourth partner who has mostly preferred to be behind the scenes, as well as with generous donations from community members.
But as infrastructure needs for the facility have continued, the lines for some in the community have blurred between the role of the nonprofit Shakespeare Walla Walla and the for-profit Power House Theatre. There’s confusion for some, if not skepticism, about whether donations to the organizations are ultimately benefiting private owners.
Williams understands the frustrations because he, too, was confused as an outsider looking in.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why are a nonprofit and a for-profit operating in the same sphere together,’” he explained. “The two have functioned almost as one entity, and that has caused a lot of confusion.”
One of his foremost missions is to provide clarity on the separation. Shakespeare Walla Walla is a nonprofit group started and supported by some of the same investors in the theater. The theater is a private facility purchased and revitalized from a 120-year-old former gas plant.
A historic tax credit provided to owners because of their work at the property has been cashed in by three of the four owners and reinvested directly into the facility. The fourth hasn’t yet exercised the tax credit.
Over time, the theater building will eventually be gifted to the nonprofit, Williams said.
“The for-profit is there to service the nonprofit,” he explained.
The theater, which has its own separate staff, also offers shows beyond Shakespearean productions. Operators discovered quickly doing so would be vital to the success of the building. But they continue their long-term vision for a destination Shakespearean theater that will draw visitors from all over the region while consistently offering performances and productions around those shows.
Eventually, Williams said Shakespeare Walla Walla could also take over programming at the theater.
Roughly six weeks into the job, Williams said his first order of business was securing a new board of directors. Two original board members and theater owners Mark Anderson and Dennis Ledford were both set to retire from the Shakespeare Walla Walla board this summer. Ledford will, however, continue as chair of the Education Committee.
Original board member Barbara Peterson will remain. Joining her as new board members are: Suzanne Shafer, Tom Drumheller, Tom Maccarone, Betsy Hadden, Shannon Block, David Crawford and Chaundra Dominguez.
The second major undertaking will be getting next month’s production of “Merchants of Venice” up and running. The cast is a combination of about half local and half nonlocal performers under leadership from Artistic Director Stephanie Shine.
A typical day for Williams includes juggling four to six meetings and fielding 100 to 200 emails regarding everything from finding volunteers to website improvements.
“The vast majority of my time is spent in finding people who want to participate in any way shape or form,” Williams explained, pausing occasionally to offer a cheery greeting to friends and associates passing on the sidewalk outside of Olive.
Williams initially came to Walla Walla from the Seattle area as a partner in a residential home design and construction management company. He had purchased a Main Street storefront with the intention of a major revitalization.
But in the midst of the transition the economy collapsed, and bankruptcy followed.
Drawn to the wine industry, he became retail manager of the new Waterbrook Winery facility that had been constructed by Precept Wine on U.S. Highway 12.
There he rekindled a long relationship with the arts as he used the venue to stage new exhibits and performances.
A theater graduate from Occidental College, Williams’ bio includes work at the Mark Taper Forum, Pasadena Civic Auditorium and Conejo Players. He spent three seasons at Remsen-Bird Amphitheatre, Occidental College Outdoor Summer Repertory Festival.
He moved to Orlando for Disney Special Events Entertainment and later to the Candlewood Playhouse in Connecticut as an assistant producer. From there he went to New York where he had on- and offstage credits, including in stage management at the Roundabout Theatre.
He followed his interest in television and film to Rome, where he spent seven years working in every aspect of production. After his recurring movie role, he also became executive producer for what became a cult series of nine episodic films before returning to the states.
Initially Williams had applied for the advertised executive director position for the Power House Theatre. But instead, operators asked if he would consider helping to revitalize the nonprofit Shakespeare Walla Walla.
Beyond “Merchants of Venice,” his eyes are firmly set on a massive expansion of the organization’s education component.
Summer theater workshops for kids of all ages are set for the YMCA on July 30 and 31. The two-day program will run more than 100 kids through everything from theater games to behind-the-scenes roles, depending on ages of kids.
Another three days in August will be dedicated to theater education with Camp Fire USA kids. Williams said he eventually hopes to grow the camps into major attractions for students.
He wants to offer playwright workshops, deep poetry nights for teens, improv nights at the theater, workshops and more, integrating performing arts groups from local dance schools to the symphony.
“Eventually the summer festival will become that tourism draw that Harry Hosey envisioned, which is so brilliant,” Williams said.