Gloucester Stage Company artistic director Robert Walsh has made theater a full-contact sport
Bob Walsh fights a lot. He loves fighting, and studies how to fight better. He even teaches others how to fight.
We’re not talking about some wise guys punching out each other in an alley. Or MMA training. We’re talking about stage combat — actors fighting for an audience.
When Bob Walsh talks about fighting, he says unexpected things like “not just being painterly, but using the whole space.” No bloodshed here. What Walsh does is stage craft of a high order.
Walsh directs as well, and acts. Most importantly to the Gloucester Stage Company and its audiences, he brings all of those fighting, acting, and directing experiences to bear in running the troupe.
Since 2015, Walsh has been artistic director of the GSC, just the third person to lead the East Gloucester theater ensemble. Founded by Israel Horowitz and others almost four decades ago, GSC was previously also directed by Eric Engels in the early 2000s.
Fighting helped get Walsh there, but that’s only part of it.
“I spent ten years in New York, working as an actor,” he says. “I was having some great experiences, and others where the direction wasn’t as strong as the creative group that was assembled.”
That led to a hiatus in the midwest — “I was influenced to step out on my own,” he says — where Walsh took an MFA in directing at Purdue University. After that came decades of work in New England, high-profile collaborations with almost every notable company: Merrimack Rep, Shakespeare & Company, Huntington Theatre, Portland Stage, Commonwealth Shakespeare.
Walsh managed the American Stage Festival through a near-death experience in the early 2000s — “It was my first formal artist director job there,” he says. “It was so demanding, when the AD job at Gloucester showed up at first I swore it off.” Walsh is also a founding member of the prestigious Actors’ Shakespeare Project, for whom he has directed and acted in dozens of plays. In addition, he’s on the faculty at Brandeis University, and serves as artistic director of the Brandeis Theatre Company.
His tenure at Gloucester Stage has been inspired. When he took over as artistic director, he helped infuse the company with new energy, incorporating smart programming with some coloring-out-of-the-lines when it comes to attracting audiences. His process includes continuing a focus on new works, and then developing non-main stage activities.
“We like having living playwrights in the process,” he says. “John Kolvenbach, who was here in 2016 with Bank Job, is part of that. So is Deborah Zoe Laufer, who did Out of Sterno and The Last Schwartz. It’s a key ingredient.”
The NeverDark reading series has been an audience and artistic success — several plays, including last season’s Elliot Norton-award winning My Station in Life — have not only found enthusiastic audiences for their initial readings, but been workshopped into successful subscription season presentations. Walsh has also helped built a robust staff — not an easy task for a seasonal organization — creating genuine career-building opportunities for young theater professionals.
Still, his tenure has been darkened by the allegations of sexual misconduct by founding director Horovitz. Horovitz became a poster boy for the #MeToo movement in 2017, when decades of sexually aggressive behavior — including allegations of rape — were uncovered, almost all of it involving GSC personnel or artists.
The timing seems patently unfair for Walsh and everyone else currently involved with GSC — Horovitz had stepped down more than a decade before Walsh even got there. Walsh realizes that. He also realizes the issue won’t go away, and that he is the one who must address it.
“We have to articulate who we are, and what we want to be,” he said in light of the allegations. “We have to own it. We continue to apologize deeply to any person who has felt unsafe within these four walls. I think that people want us to succeed, but they also want to know that things are changing.”
GSC management has owned it — right from the beginning. Things have changed. Adopting the Not in Our House standards for reporting miscreant behavior — aggressively proactive practices formulated by the Chicago theater community — has established a new work environment at the company’s Gorton Theatre.
“It’s part of our regimen now,” he says of the protocols. “People have been afraid to come forward, afraid of being ostracized, and now they have resources.”
Walsh tries to focus on building the future at Gloucester Stage. “There is an aspect we have of being a safe harbor for living playwrights, and we’re steaming full ahead with that,” he says. “We’re not overhauling who we are. We are trying to be ourselves, and also be as inclusive as we can. In creating a kind of place where #MeToo has informed the leadership.
“We are learning how to move on staffing, and board representation. Cape Ann is not a space of diversity, and that makes those things particularly hard.”
The whole concept of “owning it” means that Walsh will probably address these issues as long as he’s associated with Gloucester Stage. But he’s still aggressively optimistic about the company, and thinking of ways to build on the good parts of its history.
“Our reputation for promoting living playwrights has gotten us national recognition in the past, some amazing press, and that’s great,” he says. “It could be better. Look at what Diane Paulus is doing at A.R.T. Almost everything they do seems to be going to New York. To have plays like that germinate in Gloucester would be amazing.
“The other piece for us is how do we have a presence for Boston audiences. We’ve tried, but for a lot of folks we’re not a big Boston idea.
“This town is small,” he says, “and we have to maintain a community focus. We have to use that energy. We’re a professional acting company, and do high caliber work, but we’re also local. We can explore some parts of that — like a partnership with the Gloucester Writers Center maybe, what would that look like?
“We could have a new play festival, and expand the NeverDark into a bigger platform,” he says. “Maybe some ten-minute plays, or paid readings and actor productions. All ideas are good ideas, and I’m trying to stay tuned in to what we have, and maintain a vision for the future.”
Shawn Henry is a Gloucester-based editorial photographer.
▶︎ Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St, Gloucester. (978) 281 4433. For tickets and showtimes, click here.