Atlanta theater legend’s death stuns community

Robert J. Farley, co-founder, with his wife, Anita Allen-Farley, of the Georgia Ensemble Theatre, died suddenly Thursday, according to his daughter, Laurel Farley Crowe.

Crowe posted on her Facebook page Thursday: “It is with profound sadness that I share the news of the passing of my father, Robert J. Farley (Mr. Bob). His death this morning was sudden and unexpected. He was a beacon of light and positivity in a world that can use a little more of both.”

Farley’s death stunned Atlanta’s theater community. Only a few weeks ago he was honored for lifetime achievement at the Suzi Bass Awards, Atlanta’s most prestigious theater award. “Our hearts and prayers and love are with the Farley family and Georgia Ensemble family at this difficult time,” the organization posted.

“Everybody’s in shock right now,” said Atlanta playwright and actor Topher Payne on Thursday evening, just before a performance in “Santaland Diaries.” “He was fighting what he said was a minor respiratory infection. He was scheduled to go the doctor today to have that looked at.”

Read and sign the online guestbook for Robert J. Farley

One of eight siblings, Farley grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He told writer Wendell Brock he was groomed to become a priest. A stint in high school theatrical productions changed his mind. He was admitted into the Pasadena Playhouse’s College of Theatre Arts, and went on to direct touring companies and to co-found the Alaska Repertory Theatre.

Though the temperatures were 90 below in Anchorage, actor/director Shannon Eubanks joined the Alaska company for a winter-time production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” and discovered that Farley had navigated into a beautiful place: a packed 600-seat theater, many state grants, oil-boom money and a town brimming with art galleries.

The Alliance Theatre brought him to Atlanta where he served as artistic director for three years, boosting subscriptions to 20,000 and producing the smash hit “Driving Miss Daisy.” In 1992 he left the Alliance to create the Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET), establishing a home at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center.

Eubanks also ended up in Atlanta, and discovered that she was a neighbor of the Farleys after moving to East Cobb. Among the shows she has directed at GET is Topher Payne’s “Morningside,” which just wrapped up. Farley listened intently to his team’s ideas, whether the ideas came from writers, actors, build shop or crew, she said. “It really did foster a wonderful collaborative effort.”

Farley’s dramatic exit comes after he announced this spring that 2017-2018 would be his last season with the GET. After co-founding the company and leading it for 25 years, Farley, 69, was bowing out. He planned to spend more time with his four grandchildren and perhaps become a hospital clown.

“He had these big plans for the next chapter,” said his daughter, Laurel Farley Crowe. His grandchildren include her two children: William Robert Crowe, 13 and Finley Allen Crowe, 3, and her sister Heather’s two children: Clara Marie Farley Butcher, 3, and Sadie Rae Farley Butcher, five months.

“He loved his theater and he loved his artists wholly, with every fiber of his being,” said Laurel Crowe. “He was the best dad you know, and sometimes he was a dad to others too.”

During his early years, Farley spent many performances on the road with one of the first touring productions of “Hair!” and there was always a bit of “residual hippie” in his temperament, said Payne.

His version of the counterculture involved creating a community (or a commune) that could create great theater, he said.

“He had a way of selling you on the idea that the only way we achieve anything is if we achieve it together,” said Payne, who premiered six of his plays at GET with Farley as the producer. “It led him to founding Georgia Ensemble Theatre, 25 years ago. It led him to take uncalculated risks on artists that he believed in. Like me.”

Kenny Leon, former artistic director at the Alliance, said Farley “was a real artistic treasure in Atlanta and provided so many artists paths to greatness.”

Farley’s death is a loss that is still reverberating through that theater community. “His kindness and hard work is what made Atlanta Theatre better each and every day,” wrote the Metropolitan Atlanta Theater Awards. “Losing him is like having the industry’s right arm torn off.”

The family was still making plans for a memorial service at press time. Northside Chapel will handle funeral arrangements, said Crowe.

Related stories:

Robert J. Farley to retire after 50 years in theater

Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s 2017-2018 season schedule

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