Skip to main content

William Ball Papers

Identifier: 1991-0003

Scope and Contents

This collection contains the papers, notes, and lectures of William Ball, primarily from the early years of the American Conservatory Theatre. Five boxes contain annotated scripts of plays. In addition, there are news clipping scrapbooks, sketches and photographs of productions, audio recordings of William Ball's speeches and lectures, video recordings of productions, and some memorabilia. The early years of the American Conservatory Theatre, from circa 1965 to 1970 are carefully chronicled. There is almost nothing collected from 1985 to 1991.


  • Majority of material found within 1960-1985
  • 1922-1991

Biographical Note

William Gormaly Ball (1931–1991) is primarily known as the founder and long-time director of the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.). He was instrumental in re-establishing community theater in the United States in the tradition of European conservatories.

Ball was born in Chicago in 1931 to Catherine and Russell Ball, and grew up in Rochester, N.Y. He started college at Fordham University, then transferred to Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949 to study stage production. His teacher, Henry F. Boettcher, was an important influence on him. Ball received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1953. After a year on a Fulbright scholarship studying with such groups as the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon, Ball returned to Carnegie Tech and obtained an M.A. in directing.

Ball acted with regional companies across the country, then went on to direct and act in New York, receiving awards for his productions of Chekhov's Ivanov (1958), Dylan’s Under Milkwood (1958), and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1962).

The American Conservatory Theatre was established in Pittsburgh in 1965 with a (Rockefeller) Ford Foundation Matching Grant. While in New York Ball was concerned about most American actors’ inability to play more than one type of role. The conservatory style of government sponsored theater that he had observed while in Europe provided a solution to the problem. It combined seasoned actors with beginners: the beginning actors would learn from the experience of the former and also get real stage experience, while the seasoned actors would attend classes to perfect their craft, thus avoiding the stagnation Ball observed on Broadway.

Ball considered the problem of actors’ training to be of a national scope and purposefully named his conservatory the American Conservatory Theatre. All A.C.T. members, professional actors and students, had to attend classes taught by Ball and others as well as put on almost 30 shows a year. An agreement with the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Pittsburgh Playhouse provided A.C.T. with classrooms to teach in and a stage on which to perform. The initiative was an immediate success, heralded by the Pittsburgh Press as the return of theater culture to Pittsburgh.

In 1966 however Ball had to take A.C.T. on the road, in search for a new home for the company. Finally, in 1967 A.C.T. settled into what would be its permanent home, the historic Geary Theater in San Francisco, California. Among the first plays Ball directed for A.C.T. were Tartuffe, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Under Milk Wood and Tiny Alice.

William Ball and A.C.T. were soon recognized nationwide as innovators in theater. Ball's productions of Cyrano de Bergerac (1974) and The Taming of the Shrew (1976) were televised nationally on PBS. A.C.T. received a Tony Award in 1979. That same year William Ball received an honorary Doctorate of Arts from Carnegie Mellon University.

In 1984, William Ball published A Sense of Direction, outlining his theory of directing, including his concept of “positation”, the art of making positive feedback rather than negative criticism.

In 1986 Ball resigned from A.C.T. after a disagreement with the board, following a period of financial and artistic problems at A.C.T.. He moved to Los Angeles, where he developed television movies and mini-series for Bud Yorkin Productions for nearly two years. He also taught acting, and in 1990 performed the role of Gaev in The Cherry Orchard at the La Jolla Playhouse. He died on 30 July, 1991 at his home in Los Angeles.

Monographs and theses that provide an overview of A.C.T. and William Ball's work include John Wilk's The Creation of an Ensemble, William Ball's A Sense of Direction, or Rodney Eatman's "In Search of Directorial Style: A Study of the Productions of William Ball at the American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, 1965". All of these are contained within this collection, in the series "Monographs and Theses".


24.0 Linear feet (24 boxes and 6 oversize scrapbooks)




William Ball (1931-1991), a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, was the founder and director of the renowned American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.). This collection contains his papers, sketches, and lectures, as well as annotated scripts, photographs and audiovisual material, primarily from the early years of the American Conservatory Theatre.


The collection was donated by William Ball to the Carnegie Mellon University Archives in 1991.

Related Archival Materials note

Additional information on the William Ball and the American Conservatory Theater can be found in the American Conservatory Theater small collection.


A conservation survey of audio and video recordings in this collection needs to be conducted, and the tapes re-housed in archival containers. No attempt was made to reorganize the series "Audio Recordings" and existing inventory data in the sub-series "Cassettes" was not checked against the physical items.
William Ball Papers, 1922-1991
Laure Bukh
August 27, 2013
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Carnegie Mellon University Archives Repository

4909 Frew St
Pittsburgh PA 15213
(412) 268-5021