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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Life in theater for Robert Boles of Sturgeon Bay, Part 1

Critic At Large

Co-artistic director, etc., of Third Avenue Playhouse

Robert Boles poses outside the office of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay. (Amy Frank)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Robert Boles is an analytical sort, so the co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse answered a question about his start in theater with wonderment.

“What did get me involved? My mother was a piano/opera major in college. My dad was a farmer. We grew up in a farming family. So I’m guessing whatever inclinations I got for theater came from my mother, although she was not encouraging me to go into the profession at all.

“But initially I wanted to be a singer. I was a very weird child. When people were listening to the Beatles and other rock groups in the ’60s, I was listening to Frank Sinatra and Jack Jones. I fantasized being a singer, and I was pulled out and put into show choirs in school and all that. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I didn’t know exactly how I’d do it.

“Then I had a sort of revelation, if you will, an epiphany, when I went to boarding school in my high school years. We had movie nights every Saturday night in the study hall, and the movie one week was ‘East of Eden’ with James Dean. I remember going up to the English teacher, who was threading the 16-millimeter projector – we didn’t have videos at that time – and asked him what the movie was and he told me, and I said, ‘James Dean? I mean, some guy who makes sausage? Who’s that?’ And he said, ‘Just sit down, sit down, enjoy. You’ll thank me later.’

“And I saw that movie, and it was like the guy was reading my mind. I fell into that – his whole story, his whole character in that movie – and I was crying and just totally emotionally involved in this film. I had never seen anything like it, never seen a performance like that in my life. I think I was 15. And I remember leaving the study hall that night and saying to myself, ‘If I could make people feel the way he just made me feel, that would be the greatest thing.’ And that’s when I started pursuing theater classes.

“I took every class I could, every community theater production I could audition for. I just dove in and then eventually went to college and majored in theater and wound my way to New York and studied there for a couple years.

Movie poster.

“So it really was from that moment. I can still remember that so vividly how much that affected me and how much I thought that that notion of being able to share your emotional life on stage in front of an audience – it changed the idea of what theater was.

“Singing for me was about showing off. It was about showing off my voice. You know, maybe if I told a joke, people would laugh. It was about showing off. And I suppose there is a bit of that in every actor. You want to show off. But this was something else.

“This was something more along the lines of sharing a part of myself with people. At the time, I couldn’t have defined it as that, but that’s really what that was – some need of mine to share my emotional life and the emotional life of the character that I was portraying and to delve into the life of other people to do that. And it doesn’t have to be a, you know, angst-ridden James Dean performance. It could be a slapstick comedy, it could be anything. It’s just bringing those people and those stories to life that excited me at that moment and to this day.

“It’s sort of for better, for worse. My parents probably would have said for worse. This was not the profession they intended me to go into. But they came around finally.”

The “for worse” – and some of the better – is happening today to Robert Boles and a multitude of theater professionals all over the map. All know very well what the coronavirus COVID-19 has done to their calendar.

“It’s shut down our theater the rest of the year. For now, we’ve canceled everything.

“What we normally would be doing right now is rehearsing and performing and doing shows six nights a week practically – shows in rehearsal and all that stuff. So then it’s a matter of switching gears. We’re doing all kinds of Zoom meetings with the board and with other people figuring out how to fund-raise to maintain operating costs because we’ve lost a lot of income through ticket revenue and just prepare for whatever future that comes our way.

“And personally, one day blends into another, I’m always thinking about the theater, obviously. The good thing is I get a chance to read a lot more plays and read for pleasure, which is something I’ve not been able to do a lot of the last few years. The good part about it is there is time for reflection and planning for the future and not always running around all the time being busy with one thing or another.

“It’s a mixed bag. I really miss having the excitement and the stimulation of working with actors and the audience and everything else. That part is very sad.

Third Avenue Playhouse offers an online series in which Robert Boles and James Valcq feature personalities in theater.

“But the amount of support that comes from our patrons and from the actors who we work with has been really enormous. Financially, most of the people who bought tickets turned them back to us and donated the money back to us, and a few gave us an extra donation. We’ve been having people coming out of the woodwork trying to help us out to get through this, and I think we will get through this. I think I know we will get through it. You know, it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be tough.

“But, yeah, my days are pretty consumed with that and just trying to keep a structure in my life personally. You know, when you have all this time on your hands, time that a year ago you said, ‘Oh, I wish I had time to do this or that,’ and now you do have that time and so then it becomes, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ what do you start doing, you know? Or do you do anything? So I force myself to make plans for every day and have some kind of structure, how ever loose, to maintain some sort of a normal life for myself. Every day is different, I have to say that.

“It’s just a new challenge we’re all going through. I’m on the Zoom meetings with all the theaters in Wisconsin. We have one once a month. We commiserate and just find out where everybody is and what they’re doing and all that. That sense of camaraderie amongst the different companies has been really helpful and encouraging.”

Sign at entrance. (Warren Gerds)

In the fore of Third Avenue Playhouse are co-artistic directors Robert Boles and James Valcq, with Amy Frank as managing director.

Robert Boles’ responsibilities “sort of changed in the last couple of years. I have my artistic responsibilities of programming the theater, directing, rehearsing and then maintaining and dealing with all the performances that happen. It’s keeping the artistic part of the enterprise going on all levels – connecting with other theaters, going to see what other theaters are doing, doing a lot of reading about theaters around the country and just trying to keep up on that.

“And then on an administrative side, I have certain duties. But that has changed a bit because in the last year or so we hired Amy Frank as managing director, something that we’ve needed for some time. Up to her hiring, it was on my shoulders to primarily deal with the business end of the theater in consultation with the board and some other people. But that was one of my big duties, and I’m more than happy to have packed that up and handed it over to Amy, who does it extremely well. She does the bulk of that now, and do whatever she doesn’t have time to do.

“We maintain that kind of balance. It’s given me more time, frankly, to deal with the artistic end – a little more time preparing productions, casting and doing all the other artistic things needed for the theater. That’s really been a godsend having her as part of our team.”

Swashbuckler in “The Fantastics” (Third Avenue Playhouse)

For going on nine years, Third Avenue Playhouse has employed professional actors to present up-close performances in its 90-seat chamber theater-style Studio Theatre. Sometimes, Robert Boles performs, as in “The House of Blue Leaves,” “Yuletide Tales” and “The Fantasticks.” 

More often, Robert Boles directs, as for “Tomfoolery,” “Lungs,” “Billy Bishop’s War,” “The Subject Was Roses,” “Souvenir,” “The Santaland Diaries,” “Love Letters,” “Greater Tuna,” “A Tuna Christmas,” “This Wonderful Life,” “Talley’s Folly,” “Private Lives,” “Oleanna,” “Educating Rita,” “Sylvia,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “Isaac’s Eye,” “The Gin Game,” “True West,” “Red” and “Every Brilliant Thing.”

James Valcq, from left, Logan Thomas, Robert Boles and Dan Klarer on a happy night for “Every Brilliant Thing.” (Third Avenue Playhouse)

The directing gigs started this way.

“I studied in New York during the mid-’70s. The summer after I finished my conservatory program in 1976, I went home to visit my family. I intended to stay for a week or so, but didn’t return to New York for six years.

“You see, I ran into some old friends who were starting a new theater, and I was asked to be a part of it. Since school was over and I had nothing going on, I made the decision to stay for a while to be a part of this new theater. I became a full-time member of its resident acting company. Fresh out of school, I had a full-time job as an actor – 12 months a year for the next six years. The theater was – and is – the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and it is still there after 44 years.

“While there, I acted in a wide variety of plays and musicals ranging from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Neil Simon and Tennessee Williams to George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim.

“I directed my first two plays while there. I taught acting workshops twice a week for almost three years in the Arkansas prison system, and many other things. 

“I sang with Peter Lawford at a benefit, was given drunken career advice one evening by Mercedes McCambridge and was invited to a private party for our theater at the Governor’s mansion – our hosts were named Bill and Hillary (Clinton). It was all in all an extraordinarily unique experience. 

With Arkansas Rep, second from left, top center. (Arkansas Repertory Theatre, 1978)

“I left after six years because I felt it was time to move on, and that is when I returned to New York with far more experience than when I left. That experience, along with my time in academia right before coming to TAP, has been invaluable to what I’m doing today. Back then, we were starting a new theater from scratch, and for all intent and purposes that’s what we were facing when we arrived in Sturgeon Bay almost nine years ago.”

Long based in New York, Robert Boles first came to Door County in 1996 or ’97.

“I knew Suzanne Graff and (her husband) Jerry Gomes, who ran Door Shakespeare (where James Valcq performed) at the time. Suzanne and I did an Off-Broadway musical in New York in 1995 that James wrote, ‘Zombies from the Beyond.’ And Claire Morkin, who’s now living in Sturgeon Bay (and has performed in Third Avenue Playhouse plays), was also in that cast. So I came to visit them and saw Door County.

“Suzanne’s parents had a condo in Egg Harbor at the time and weren’t staying there, so we could stay there. We drove into Door County at night. I’m going, ‘Yeah, well, what’s all this about? I can’t see anything.’ And we got to the condo in the dark. The next morning, was this beautiful panoramic view of the bay. ‘Ohhh, now I see.’ And then tooled around Door County. I think I had one of those little moments, ‘Oh, I could open a bookstore here. Maybe a little movie theater in back of it or something.’

“I saw a couple of AFT things in the early 90s (AFT being American Folklore Theatre, forerunner of Northern Sky Theater). That’s where I met Doug Mancheski (who acts in Third Avenue Playhouse plays) and Fred Alley and those people. (Fred Alley was co-founder of American Folklore Theatre and teamed with James Valcq to write the hit “The Spitfire Grill” after featuring him in “Guys on Ice”).

“When we got the job here at TAP, I had only experienced Door County in summer. So suddenly, ‘Well, I’m going to be living here now, so I went back to New York, packed up a U-Haul with our things and came here.

“Then I bought the most Arctic clothing I could find because I remember being in ‘Footloose’ in January in Green Bay (at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts), and it was freakin’ 30 below. I never experienced cold that way.

“We were in a hotel, and we were going to a bar across the street. We could see it from our window. We had to cross this little bridge. My friend and I, Ted (Ted Bouton, who was Principal Clark in the show), walked out of the hotel and got two steps into that cold, ran back into the hotel and called a cab to take us basically a block to the bar.”

Monday: Robert Boles’ colorful adventures with “Footloose.”

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