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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Life in theater for Robert Boles of Sturgeon Bay, Part 3

Critic At Large

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

Robert Boles poses in the lobby of Third Avenue Playhouse during the time of directing “columbinus.” (Warren Gerds)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – As it did for many, 9/11 affected Robert Boles and his escapades in professional theater.

“I was in New York. I lived in Upper Manhattan, but I lived right on the Hudson River, and I’d go to the river and look down and I could see the smoke billowing and all that.

“I lived through that time. Show business really shut down for a while. ‘The Spitfire Grill’ (of Wisconsinites Fred Alley and James Valcq) had just started performances four days before. All of Broadway and Off-Broadway small theater shut down for about four or five days before theater started up again. But as far as auditions and new work went, those disappeared– even the auditions that I didn’t want to go on. Everything just disappeared. There was hardly anything happening.

(The first two parts of this column are here:,

“I seriously said, ‘Well, I never finished my bachelor’s degree, and maybe now’s the time, make my mother happy and finish my college degree. I was saying no for so much (in auditions and more) that I thought, ‘Let me study something else. What else am in interested in? Maybe I’m just too shallow or whatever.’ But I really didn’t want to study acting. I’d done enough of that, taken acting classes all my life, and dance. What else?

“So I studied directing, playwrighting and philosophy and other courses that were purely academic and thought-provoking – world literature and all of that. So I delved into it for a couple of years, and I had the best time because suddenly I was thrust in a situation where I was working for myself and working to, yes, to get a good grade I suppose and all that, but it wasn’t like showbusiness where you’re just judged almost immediately when you walk in the door. I was being judged for my intellect, for what I was able to accomplish through these classes. A totally different thing. And being a student later on in life, too, when you’re not going because you feel you have to but you’re going because you want to and you want to learn.

“So I did this for a couple of years, got my bachelor’s degree. My graduation ceremony was in Madison Square Garden – enormous. I thought, ‘I like this, I want to continue doing this.’ So I decided I’d go to grad school.

Graduation day in Madison Square Garden.

“In the meantime, I’m telling my agent, ‘This is only temporary.’ He didn’t like me going to school because it took up my time. So I kept trying to keep him happy to audition here and there.

“I went to Sara Lawrence College to their graduate theater program, again studying playwrighting and directing, focusing on that and thinking, ‘Okay, I get a master’s, I can teach if I needed a job.’ But I had no real goals other than to finish and get the degree. Actually, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just get a job at Barnes & Noble, sit at home and write plays the rest of my life that no one’s ever going to produce,’ or whatever. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

“I guess my main thing in going back to school was that I felt a great need to shake myself up, that I’d gotten too complacent, that I was running the show business treadmill for the longest time. And I was just exhausted. You know, you reach a point that I know a lot of actors do.

“I talked to (director) Michael Wright yesterday about this. He lasted 12 years in New York. After a while, he just couldn’t take the emphasis on me, me, me all of the time – which you have to do in show business. He found Wisconsin to be a much more welcoming and artistically nurturing place to be. I was in New York twice that long. I was very stubborn. I was going to see things through, and I just reached a point where I did not want to be rejected again. You go through a certain amount of rejection as just part of the job and most of the time you can sort of throw it off. But after a while, it does get to you.

“And then living in New York, which I love – I love that city – but that can be exhausting to live there. It’s expensive and just having to deal with New York on a day-by-day basis is one thing when you’re 20 years old, it’s another thing when you’re pushing 50. And so I wanted to shake myself up, and I did. I did shake myself up.

“Within a week after getting my master’s degree, I was called in for a job to create the theater department at the University of New Haven. When I went in for the interview for that job, I thought it was just for an adjunct, you know, teach a class. And they said, ‘Oh no, no, no, no, no. We want someone to direct the program.’ And I said, ‘You did look at my resume, right?’ And there’s nothing on my resume that would indicate that I have any experience teaching whatsoever. And they said, ‘Oh no, we want somebody with professional experience to do it.’

“This was a school that had a few theater classes. They had a theater minor, and they wanted to beef up the program to do this. So I said, ‘Oh, okay, you’re taking a chance on me, I’ll take a chance on you, so let’s see how it goes.’ And I as there for six years.

“In that time period, I wrote an entire theater major for the school that they’re still using today and got it accredited in less than 2½ years, which I had no idea but in academia to go from not having a major to having in an accredited major in an institution is like light speed. I didn’t have a clue about that, but I guess that’s what got me through it. I really didn’t know what I was doing other than I created a theater program that I thought I would want to go through and try to make it general enough to make it adaptable so that when other people came in they could change it and form it to what was actually needed at that time.”

Robert Boles dealt with academia and “endless faculty showdowns” and had to defend a question: Why is theater important?

“I never had to define that to someone before. I just took all that for granted. So it forced me to be able to talk to people and come up with an explanation that they’d understand, of why theater was important, why it was important for people to study theater, for a school to have a theater department to begin with – and just give definition to that. It was a big learning curve for me. It was like defending what I had taken for granted, my existence. It was really eye opening.

“As hard as it was, I was really happy that I went through that because it helped me in a lot of ways, just dealing with different people. I got involved with the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival with the school, and then I got on one of their national committees. I was on their playwrighting committee, and they would fly me around the country, and I would deal with students in different schools on their plays. That was really interesting.

“I gave myself five years there, to get the major done, get them involved with the Kennedy Center, and anything else – got donors to donate to the program. But I was looking to leave right after that because, you know, a lot of things that I did I just did out of pure instinct. At that time, I was around really – through the Kennedy Center especially – I’d meet all these different professors from all over the place and met some really incredible people whose life’s work was working with students in the theater, and they just wiped me off the platter. They were great. I saw what a really great teacher would be, and I’m not short selling myself, I have certain things to give, but I just didn’t see that as a long-term career for me.

Robert Boles. (Third Avenue Playhouse)

“I did what I could for the school, and it was growing and getting better. Then, James and I bought a house here in Door County as a summer home, a vacation house. James was working a lot with Northern Sky Theater and was working at Door Shakespeare, and he had been doing that for three/four years. And there are a lot worse places to spend a summer than Door County.

“Some of the housing was a reasonable price and I had a little money earning nothing in a savings account, so ‘Let’s have a little vacation home,’ which was kind of thrilling for me. I never thought of myself as a guy with a vacation home. But there I was.

“It was during that first summer; I finished my semester at New Haven, and I came here to spend my first summer in my new vacation home. And then everything happened. Judy Drew resigned (as managing director) from Third Avenue Playhouse, and one thing led to another and James and I were asked to come interview for a job. I said, ‘Why not, it’s summer, let’s see what that’s about.’

“James and I had been playing around with the idea of starting little theater in Door County, but it was about as serious as you are when you’re on vacation and, ‘You know, I could buy a little bookstore here and settle down easily.’ So it was a game we played that summer.

“We even looked a couple of places, looked at the old railroad depot. A couple of years before Rogue Theater was in there, we were looking at that, ‘Oh, cute space and historical building – that would make a nice theater.’ And I even went over to TAP and talked to Judy Drew, and I thought, ‘Well, what if we rented out the back room?’ and we talked a little bit about that. And it was fun. We talked with some actors around the county about that. But I fully expected to go back to New Haven.

“Then Judy Drew out of the blue resigned, and suddenly we found ourselves in the living room of the president of the board of directors and other members of the board, and within a week after that, we were offered the job, and I had a quick decision to make because this was August. I was on a year-to-year contract, and my current contract at the university was up right after Labor Day… I never thought twice about it… It was a decision to stay here to do this thing at TAP that was made so quickly, and it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It still does.

“Here we were given a chance to run a theater, to shape it into whatever thing we wanted to make. Here’s this sandbox, do with it what you can. And I’d just come out of a situation where I created, essentially, a theater department from scratch. This was a different kind of challenge but somewhat similar in that respect. It felt right. This was the time to leave that job and perhaps leave New York. I didn’t live in New Haven, I commuted back and forth to New York to New Haven.

Marquee for “Steel Magnolias.” (Warren Gerds)

“So it was a snap decision, and I hadn’t made that kind of decision since the very first time when I was 20 years old and I decided I had a couple thousand bucks in the bank and I’m just going to move to New York and be an actor. There was a little more thought around it than that, but still it was not much more than that. I was, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ And this was a similar kind of thing.

“We were given an opportunity, and it felt it was the right thing for me to do. Certainly right for James. He was ready to leave New York long before I was, and he’s from Wisconsin so he was anxious to get back here.

“And so we just took a plunge and, again, not knowing how it was going to work out, if it was going to work out. But like that job at the university, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and it was an all-new world for me and I just dove in and did what I did and am really proud of what I was able to accomplish by putting that same energy into Third Avenue Playhouse.

“What’s kept us going with that – and it’s been rough at times and uphill – is each year that we’ve been here there has been some measure of growth – the number of people attending, the amount of donations coming in. Sometimes that amount of growth was miniscule, but you could see it. Things were on the upward swing. It’s never gone the other way. Maybe sometimes it looked like it was going to plateau a little bit, but it always got a little bit over that hump and moved on. So that’s really what’s kept us going.

“I remember in the beginning we’d have people saying at the end of the show in the receiving line – which is probably going to stop with the new normal – and say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ And then a year or two after that it was, ‘Thank you for staying here.’ I really don’t think a lot of people, even our biggest supporters, expected this/us to stay with it. And I guess if I was looking from the outside in, I probably would have thought the same.”

What is Third Avenue Playhouse allowing Robert Boles to do that he hasn’t been able to do before?

“First of all, we’re in charge of the theater in its artistic direction. Certainly in the early years we were in charge of everything, including administrative. If anything happened, it was because James and myself or whoever we could rope in to help us did it. Now we’ve reached a point we have a really active board of directors; they all bring different things to the table and are really, really wonderful. We have Amy Frank as our managing director. We’re just bringing in a new technical director/stage manager.

“We’re the captains of the ship – something you don’t get to do in show business normally – and call the shots, decide what we’re going to do… For better or worse, it’s our artistic direction that is guiding the theater and making it what it is. We take full blame and responsibility, credit or blame, for whatever is happening. It’s all ours. And it’s a big responsibility, and it’s wonderful. You have control. I can control what it is I want to work on.

Marquee for ‘Gray’s Anatomy.” (Third Avenue Playhouse)

“Now, we look at a lot of other things. We look at, What does the audience want? There are a lot of things in deciding what to do. What we didn’t want to do is just fill the theater with things that we just couldn’t wait to do – ‘Damn what the audience wants, we want to do whatever it is we want to do. I want to do Chekhov – and this theater that’s good for you, so come and watch it.’ No. There’s a certain element of that. But I’m not a Wisconsin boy – I was new to this state and to the people who live in the state and sensibilities of people here – so I spent a great deal of time just listening to people and seeing how they reacted to the first season or two. It was just our gut feeling of what this audience would want to see. We got a little pushback from some people who said some things were maybe a little edgy or had language issues or things like that. But I looked at the community of Door County and the kinds of people who make up that community, and there’s certainly not a one-size-fit-all mentality. You have people from all walks of life from all over the world who have found their way here for a vacation or for a second home or moved here permanently or grown up here. It’s a wide variety of people. We wanted our programming to reflect the values of all of those groups of people as much as we could. There’s never going to be a one-size-fit-all kind thing.

“We looked around to see what the other companies were serving, the kinds of things that they were presenting, and we didn’t want to repeat someone else’s territory necessarily… We just didn’t want to copy some format, so that’s what we settled on and that’s what we continue to do.

“I want to find plays and musicals that we think, we hope, that people will respond to, that there’s something that certain parts of the audience will really like even though they probably never heard of it before. It’s going to be new to them, and for a lot of people it’s taking a chance on something unfamiliar, not only the play itself but coming to our theater. A lot of people were used to theaters being a certain size. So coming to a small – in Chicago would be a storefront theater basically – was new to Door County. We ran into that with people who equated small with not being as good as large. And yet it was fun to see those people come in kind of skeptical – you can kind of read them sometimes when they come in the door – and then when they leave, it’s a totally different thing because they’ve experienced theater in a totally different way than they had in the past. And that still happens. Now we get many people coming back and returning and bringing other people and people who go to all kinds of theater but we still get a fair amount of people who have never been to a theater like ours before and never experienced that kind of intimacy before in a theater. And so that’s really gratifying to see that transformation and the excitement that some of these people give from having had that experience the first time.

James Valcq, left, and Robert Boles. (Third Avenue Playhouse)

“Another factor in choosing something is, Do I want to spend my time working on this? Okay, yes, we pick a play, it’s good for the audience, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something that I would be good at directing necessarily or not. So if I’m picking something to direct myself, I want to have that personal connection. Sometimes a personal connection is stronger than other times, but there has to be a seed of something for me, and that’s the exciting part. That’s how it’s really different because in picking and choosing the things that I get to work on and spend time and cast people into these shows and really shape and work on and deliver the final product, although I don’t like to use that word in relation to a production. But, yeah, I get to work on something that I on some level am passionate about, that I think the audience will be as well if they take the chance to come see it. And, you know, not everything is everybody’s cup of tea, not everything that I’m passionate about certainly.

Robert Boles also started the StageKids theater program for Door County students.

“It started mainly because I wanted it to start. I just came out of this very rewarding academic experience with the university.

“The students were from all over campus. They were just passionate about wanting to be there. Only a few were theater majors. They were all over the map in terms of what they were studying, but they had a real need to be there. I worked with a lot of kids over the six years who just stuck with it. I got them as a freshman, I’d see them graduate.

“I just saw how important it was to them. And these were, again, not kids who were going into theater at all. That was really revelatory for me, and I get why teachers can get all misty-eyed at students because when I saw the impact of what I was doing with these kids and how much it meant to them and was clearly an important thing in their lives and how much that was and how deep it was, that was so, I mean, it just makes me cry. That’s what keeps teachers hooked. The low pay and the dealing with the administrators and all that stuff – it’s working with students who are responding to what you’re doing and needing you being there.

“So when we came to Door County, I wanted to start something as well. Of course, all we needed like a hole in the head was another thing to do.

“We hooked up with an incredible group of students for about four years… The program is still evolving. With all the other things that we took on over the years, it’s sort of taken a little hiatus for now. My goal for the program is to really have someone in charge of this entire educational outreach program because it not only is time consuming it’s a really a thing unto itself. After a while, it became a little too much for us to keep taking on on the scale that we were doing it. It’s not gone away at all. We try to do a little bit of something every year to keep it going, and we’re moving toward having that educational outreach person. So hopefully in the not too distant future, we will have a spinoff program, a complete educational program going on because it’s important. We’re still committed to do that.”

For main productions, Robert Boles is directing professional actors. How does that work? They know what they’re doing. They’ve been acting. How does he manage to be the boss and tell them what to do? And how much does he stand back and let them run?

“One of the things I have the luxury of doing is picking and choosing the people I work with. I had a very wise teacher a long time ago in a directing class tell me that ‘If you’re casting Merle Streep and Robert DeNiro, are you going to tell them how to act?’ And I said, ‘No, and I don’t think I would.’ ‘So then what do you do?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re casting people who you want to work with. You’re casting them because you think they are the right people for this part to do. You’re casting because they have a particular strength and talent that are going to be perfect or lend themselves really well to this thing. So you need to give them room to do that. You need to give them space.’

“So from the first rehearsal when we’re just sitting around the table reading the play, I listen intently to what they’re doing. I make notes. The way I’m hearing the play out of their mouths can sometimes change the way I think about the direction of the play or perhaps would lead me to suggest, ‘Why don’t you try this this way, too. See if this might work for you or not.’ And then the rehearsal period is really an extension of that all the time, to get it on its feet.

“I know the story I want to tell. Certainly there are things surrounding the actor that I want and have mostly total control of – how the lighting is going to be, sound design, all of those things. For those, I’m working with other people, and more or less I’m calling the shots. With the actors, we’re working together. I’m more of an editor than anything else.

“I don’t do a lot of straight blocking, staging – ‘Go here, go there, do this, do that.’ We take time to find out where they naturally want to go – ‘Okay, you have this amount of space on the stage here and this place to sit and this place to stand or whatever. Let’s just play with that. See what looks good to you, looks good to me.’ So it’s just a collaboration with the actors.

“There are some plays that need a little more strict staging. Musicals are like that. You can’t be so improvisatory with staging musicals. But the same things apply. You give the actors a structure, and the scene goes from point A to point B, and we have to get to B from A, and this is the stage we have to do it in.

With the cast for “Tomfoolery.” (Third Avenue Playhouse)

“First, we talk about the text and what’s going on in the scene, and then we put it on its feet and try to realize it from there. But, no, I would never presume to really tell actors what to do because once you start doing that, you put brakes on their creativity and imagination. And you’re denying yourself the pleasure and the joy of seeing that lightbulb go over their heads. It can be if they’re struggling with something and I’m trying gently to push them in a certain direction and they’re having a hard time doing it, and then suddenly they find a way to get that.

“Every actor works differently. There’s no one way. Actors are snowflakes – there’s no two who are alike. Everybody’s got a different way of working. That’s another thing that I listen very intently for – how do they need to work, how much attention from me do they need, when do they need me to pull back. I found this oddly enough when I was working at the university and working with students and then working with the students here in Door County. Students need a lot ‘Tell me what to do’ kind of thing, and I was applying basically the same idea. ‘I want to see where you are and what you want to do with this. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be you. So show me what you think.’

“That was a new thing for a lot of students to hear, and kind of scary for them. And so when I’m doing something like ‘columbinus’ several years ago, the characterizations were coming directly from these kids. I’m doing a play about high school students with high school students. I told them from the get-go – and the play was the actual voices of actual students – ‘You guys know these people far more than I do. There’s not a thing I can tell you that you don’t know in spades and you can tell me about. So that’s how we’re going to work on this play.’ And they just blossomed.

“So that’s basically how I work. I look at each actor individually, I see what it is they need. Sometimes they can tell me that, sometimes they can’t articulate that, and I just have to intuit that or watch them enough. I find if an actor’s having trouble really just to back off and let them figure out on their own. If we’re close to opening and we’re still having trouble, then, yeah I’ll say, ‘Do this, do that to this.’ That’s the last resort.”

To end, I return to a thought of Robert Boles on a kernel of acting for him:

“(T)hat’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.”

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