Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell not only is celebrating its 25th year of operation, but Artistic Director Robert Farley (who is retiring) and Managing Director Anita Allen-Farley (who isn’t retiring) received the most special honor at the 2017 Suzie Bass Awards – the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Suzi Awards are Atlanta’s special night for the region’s theater community but this night belonged to the Farleys. Topher Payne, perhaps Atlanta’s most gifted playwright – and who has premiered five of his plays on the GET stage in the last seven years – said it best introducing the couple at the Nov. 6 Suzi Bass gala.
“Bob and Anita Farley had formed a partnership long ago. And based on the strength and durability of that partnership Bob and Anita were willing to bet their future on us,” Payne said in his introduction of their award.
Anita Allen was a young student in the 1968 when she walked into the Pasadena Playhouse cafeteria and saw this young shaggy haired “hotshot director” across the room.
“I told my friend standing next to me, I think that is the man I’m going to marry,” Allen-Farley said sitting in the GET offices 50 years later. “My friend said no, he’s married to the theater.”
They were probably both right. It took eight years before it dawned on Farley, but they have always been a team.
“Anything we have accomplished it has been because Anita was right by my side. She’s a force of nature,” Farley said.
But half-way through their run together they were at a crossroads.
Farley had a fairly successful beginning as a young director, making contacts, working as a stage manager. But he was working in the theater in New York. He even got the chance to direct “Hair” on the road when it was still fresh and shocking.
“John Lindsey got this flatbed truck and we were driving around doing street theater. But when ‘Hair’ came along I was blown away. It was the best music I ever heard,” Farley said.
But he was desperate to get out of New York and back to L.A. where Anita was. Then he got a call to come to L.A. to direct “Hair” out there. So he was touring and based out of San Francisco. He began to get other directing gigs and then he was a resident director at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta.
He kept making contacts. That is when he met Claudette Colbert and she asked him to direct her.
Then at the age of only 28 he and his new wife were offered the chance to start the Alaska Repertory Theatre in 1976. The state wanted culture in the Great North soon he was on a ferry crossing over to Anchorage.
“It was the best gig I ever had,” said Farley. “We lived in log house in the middle of a birch forest with our two girls. By the third year we were the eighth largest theater nationally in the League of Resident Theaters (nonprofit).”
They had a budget of $1.7 million. The gig lasted 12 seasons until the energy crisis and there went the state funding. That was 1987, but the Alliance Theater had kept tabs on Farley, and offered him the job of artistic director.
You may remember a play he directed during that time, called “Driving Miss Daisy.” They took it to Russia. There were other great shows – “Candide,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Amadeus” and a personal favorite, “Noises Off.”
But by 1990, the Farleys had parted company with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. With 25 years in the business, they were starting over from scratch.
They were looking for a space that might work for a repertory theater they were contemplating.
“We were actually looking for the farmers market in Roswell when I caught a glimpse of something through the trees,” Allen-Farley said. “We were looking for an old church maybe that had been outgrown by its congregation.”
The doors were wide open for some reason and in they walked. The Roswell City Council liked the idea of a theater in residence.
It was what was then-called the Roswell Auditorium. It was 1991, but the Farley’s had found what would be their new home, this time OTP. Today it is the Roswell Cultural Arts Center and booked two years in advance with shows, events and entertainment.
Topher Payne said it was a great day for theater in Atlanta when the Farleys walked into that building with little more than an idea.
“Because of the strength and durability of that partnership of Bob and Anita were willing to bet their future on us. They created a space where artists could explore, create and communicate. And they have maintained that for 25 years,” Payne said.
The Farleys said they could not have done anything without sponsors and a loyal customer base. There were many great supporters such as Coe and Betty Hamlin and Mary Smith.
“Nobody moved and shook this theater like Mary,” Allen-Farley said.
Other great friends included Barbara Ramos, Louise DeLong, Jacque Cox, Gary Waddell and Tom Stark. In the early days it was great to have the support of Mayor “Pug” Mabry, Steve Dorvee and Don White.
“I’ve spent half my career – 25 years – here at Georgia Ensemble. And it seems like the shortest time I’ve spent anywhere,” Farley said.
While Allen-Farley will continue to work at GET with incoming Artistic Director Alan Kilpatrick, Bob Farley said he may stop to smell a few roses but he is not done yet. There is always another project.