Bob Farley, leader of Georgia Ensemble Theatre has died, his legacy will serve as inspiration for future generations.
By Rachael Brice
Editors note: Robert J. Farley passed away suddenly on Nov. 30. This interview, from our Dec. issue, was conducted shortly before his passing. Bob was a true leader in the arts and his passion for theatre will leave a lasting legacy for future generations.
No one would have ever guessed when Bob Farley was in ninth grade that he would end up as a theater professional. He was a shy and awkward kid who never had any interest in theatre or acting. But after attending a youth theatre variety show at a local church in St. Louis, things changed.
“I was charged with running the light board,” Farley said, “and it was here I learned you can paint with light and color, shadow and darkness, and tell stories with it. It elevated my life to a whole new level and I became addicted.”
To further fuel his newfound love for theatre, he traveled across the state of Missouri throughout the next few years to see anything and everything he could. Much to his surprise, he was accepted into some of the country’s best theatre training institutions during his senior year. Ultimately, he chose to attend the official state theatre of California, the Pasadena Playhouse.
“It was like going through boot camp,” Farley said. “Unbeknownst to me when those three years were over, I had been trained to know how to run a theatre and had substantial experience in just about everything imaginable––from interning to producing to managing a box office to budgeting for a production.”
After the incredibly valuable experience with the Pasadena Playhouse, Farley landed his first job with the APA-Phoenix Repertory Company, which was one of three major rotating repertory companies in the country. Working out of the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in New York was the greatest exposure he could have possibly ever received, Farley said.
“As a 21-year-old, I was stage managing Helen Hayes and working closely with John Cullum as well as distinguished composers including Oscar Brand,” he said. “It was really the best first job anyone could ever hope for.”
About the same time he started working on Broadway, the musical Hair opened a few blocks down the street. He admits he was a Hair “groupie” and would sneak into the show quite often. This ultimately led him to his next gig––stage managing the show in Hollywood and eventually directing all Hair productions in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, which he did out of San Francisco for the next two and a half years.
During his stint in San Francisco, Farley had a growing interest in nonprofit regional theatre. He believed he was born to serve and gained great pleasure from serving others.
“I want to make life as happy and good as I can for others,” he said, “and that’s been my true motive in life.”
After finishing Hair, working in network television, and co-founding the Alaska Repertory Theatre, Farley decided it was time for a change and to pursue his passion for nonprofit theatre.
Farley had been the Resident Director at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta from 1971 to 1974 and returned in 1987 as the Artistic Director to increase attendance. During his three-year tenure, the theatre grew from 12,000 subscribers to 20,000, the highest subscription rate in the country at the time.
“It was my goal to break down the borders of where the people were,” he said. “I needed to convince those that lived in Buckhead, Morningside, and Ansley Park that there was a world outside of that, and I believe I accomplished what I set out to do.”
But even after great success, Farley knew he wanted more.
In November of 1991, Farley and his wife Anita stumbled upon the Roswell Municipal Auditorium (now known as the Roswell Cultural Arts Center). No one was around, so they walked in and stood downstage center, and somehow knew it would be the perfect home for their next big project.
“We didn’t know how and we didn’t know when, but we knew it would be the future home of the Georgia Ensemble Theatre,” he said, “and about a year and half later, it was.”
Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET) first opened in 1992, 25 years ago, with Kaufman and Hart’s, You Can’t Take It with You, putting the theatre in an immediate financial deficit, which took 19 years to overcome.
“It’s not been easy,” Farley said, “but it’s been worth it and I don’t have any regrets.”
At the conclusion of the theatre’s current 25th Silver Anniversary season, he had been part of 175 productions with GET. He was proud of everything the theatre, staff and performers accomplished, but there were a few things that stand out above the rest.
The first is the show, And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank. This is the 21st consecutive year GET will perform the show, which has been seen by over half a million students and teachers since GET began performing it in 1997.
“It’s one of the most amazing theatre shows I’ve ever been a part of,” Farley said, “and I am extremely grateful for the show and the impact it’s had on our audiences.”
Farley believed his lasting legacy wouldn’t be from the main stage, but rather from the theatre’s new education program, which he considered would have the biggest impact on the community and its students. Earlier this year, the theatre launched the program with seven actors and four understudies, who learn each play concurrently, touring the shows around the country for the next nine months. Each show is curriculum driven so students can associate what they are learning in the classroom with the performance.
“I believe theatre education is more important than ever,” Farley said. “To take theatre to the schools and perform literature through drama is one of the only outlets left for people to experience non-linear thinking and to generally create and learn how to communicate in public, confidently and flawlessly. It changes your mind about the world.”
Farley also proudly stated that in the last 25 years, the theatre has been home to nine newly created works, and that he collaborated with and played a major role in developing American playwright, Topher Payne, who just completed his fifth show with GET in November.
“None of us had the chance to say a proper goodbye to Bob Farley. As news of his passing is shared, many who loved him will feel robbed of that opportunity,” Payne stated. “But I want you to remember what Bob knew about endings: If you did the work, if you paid attention, then the smallest deed, a nod of the head, a handshake, a few words in passing––was informed by everything that came before it.”
Alan Kilpatrick, GET’s associate artistic director will be Farley’s successor and will continue to provide the theatre and its patrons with great shows and memories that are sure to last a lifetime.
“We have an intensely loyal audience in Atlanta,” Farley said. “They are just wonderful and I love working with them; I’m going to miss them terribly.”
It is in fact all of us who will miss Bob, but let the Georgia Ensemble Theatre stand as a living testament to his dedication to the craft of theatre.