It was already shaping up to be a busy day at Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET) when the call came in on Sept. 14. Karen Howell, the regal thespian who serves as Atlanta liaison for Actors’ Equity Association, was on the line with an opening-night request.
Open Hand, an Atlanta charity, had a thank-you gift for donations Actors’ Equity had collected in the GET lobby. Would it be possible, Howell asked, to make a presentation before the show?
Fine, said GET artistic director Robert J. Farley.
Howell made her announcement to the audience, but when the moment came for her to skedaddle so the director could make his curtain speech for the season opener, “Once on This Island,” she didn’t budge.
“What’s she doing?” an impatient Farley asked associate artistic director Alan Kilpatrick, who will succeed Farley when he retires in April.
That’s when Howell, who also serves as executive director of the Atlanta theater community’s Suzi Bass Awards, dropped a bombshell.
Earlier that same day, she told the audience, the “Suzi board had voted unanimously to bestow the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award to Bob and Anita Farley.”
“She cried. I cried. Everybody cried,” remembers Farley, who announced earlier this year that he would leave GET at the end of its 25th season.
For the tall solitary man who grew up in St. Louis in a working class family of eight kids, it was a pinnacle moment.
Theater bug bites
“I was groomed to be a priest,” Farley said in a lengthy interview about his half-century in theater. In the ninth grade, his vocation changed when he was recruited for a high school talent show. He told his teachers he had no talent, so they put him in charge of the lights. “I remember turning on the light board and playing with the dimmer,” Farley recalled. “There were these red lights. There were warms and cools. It was magic!”
After high school, Farley was accepted into Pasadena Playhouse’s prestigious College of Theatre Arts. He had trouble making a decision and wasn’t sure he’d stay. But three days after arriving in California, he called his priest-mentor and told him he would not be going to seminary.
“I had seen the Pacific Ocean, went to Disneyland and met Sally Struthers,” Farley, now 69, recalls boyishly. He later met California native Anita Allen, a fellow student, in an college elevator. After dating for eight years, they were married in 1975.
When the Farleys pick up their lifetime achievement honor Nov. 6, they will have much to celebrate.
“I know I am the face of GET,” Farley said in an email after the Suzi surprise. “But Anita has always been an equal partner, a mighty force of nature, and has shared equally in our torments and triumphs.”
While Anita has agreed to continue as GET’s managing director for another four or five years, Bob plans to spend time with their four grandchildren and catch up on his Mark Twain.
He thinks it’s time to say goodbye to the stage. But is it?
From Alaska to the stars
By any measure, Bob Farley has had a good run in theater.
Shortly after graduating the Pasadena program, he directed tours for major stars like Claudette Colbert, Mickey Rooney, Patty Duke and her husband John Astin. He worked with Helen Hayes and John Cullum in New York and directed productions of “Hair” around the country, all at a very young age.
In 1976, at 28, he co-founded Alaska Repertory Theatre. He’d been there 11 years when he got a call from the Alliance Theatre. He had previously worked as a resident director for the Atlanta theater, and they noticed his track record in Alaska. In three years, Farley and his partner, Paul V. Brown, had built Alaska Rep from the ground up into the eighth largest LORT member in America. (The League of Resident Theatres is an industry organization for professional theaters that today has 72 members in 29 states.)
“It just went crazy,” Farley recalls. Alaska was in the midst of an oil boom, and he was getting “million-dollar grants from the state.”
During Farley’s Alliance tenure, subscriptions grew to 20,000, and he scored a major hit when he cast Mary Nell Santacroce in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” a show that eventually toured China and the Soviet Union. Farley left the Alliance in 1992 — not by choice — and Kenny Leon, his associate artistic director, took over.
Farley remembers driving around the metro area with Anita when they spotted their future theater in Roswell.
“All the leaves are off the trees, and Anita says, ‘What’s that?’ ”
She had spotted the dome of Roswell City Hall, with its municipal auditorium nearby.
The theater door happened to be open. They walked in and …
“Our jaws dropped. Anita and I stood downstage center and we said, ‘We don’t know anybody here. We don’t know how. We don’t know when. But this will be Georgia Ensemble Theatre.’ And about a year and a half later, it was.”
Though GET has a reputation for what its leader calls “commercial” work (“Pump Boys & Dinettes,” “Charley’s Aunt,” many versions of “The Taffetas”), in recent years Farley has built a relationship with Atlanta playwright Topher Payne. “Morningside,” Payne’s fifth world premiere on GET’s mainstage, opens Oct. 26.
Nurturing Payne is an accomplishment Farley is very proud of. He also thinks GET’s theater for youth is a “gem” that often gets overlooked. The Arts in Education program employs seven actors who perform a four-show repertoire at schools throughout Atlanta and North Georgia. Farley says he’s been “profoundly affected” by the children’s material.
Earlier this year, his 3-year-old grandson spent three days at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and again, Farley was deeply moved. “To see the care, the compassion, the professionalism, that goes into the care of those children. I was just never prepared. It changed my life.”
In that moment, Farley realized his passion for GET was starting to dim. “I said, ‘That’s when I gotta go. I gotta be frank about it and go.’ ”
Though he’s not sure what form it might take, Farley thinks his new calling may be working with kids, perhaps as a hospital clown.
If so, it’s a circle back to his first vocation, the priesthood, and a ministering instinct that friends and colleagues say has never wavered.
“He still managed to spend his career teaching lessons of empathy and compassion through parable,” says Payne, who will present the Lifetime Achievement Suzi to the Farleys. “He just went with a different venue.”