- By Wendell Brock For the AJC
Not long after her husband died, Anita Allen-Farley knocked down a wall in her home. Not out of raw grief but newfound clarity.
“We had talked for years about knocking this wall out and making this all open space,” Farley says, sitting at the dining-room table of the Marietta home she and her husband bought in 1987. Finally, she decided it was time to call a contractor to remove the divide between living room and dining room.
Since Robert J. “Bob” Farley died suddenly last November, at 69, his widow has done a lot more than make a few household changes. She’s taken over the leadership of Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET), the Roswell playhouse they founded together in 1992.
For a quiet 68-year-old used to standing in the shadows of a charismatic husband who once ran the Alliance Theatre, the transition has required courage, grace and steely determination.
“When Bob died, I just went to the board and said, ‘I don’t think we need to do anymore searches right now. There’s not a thing that we haven’t done together in the last 50 years. While he’s been the face of the theater, I have been part of most of those decisions. Just let me move forward.’”
Over a bowl of homemade ribollita soup at a dining-room table that now affords a view of a handsomely decorated living room with a brick fireplace and white wingback chairs, Farley talked about her new role as Georgia Ensemble’s producing artistic director. On Sept. 13, the theater opens its 26th season (and first without Farley) with “9 to 5: The Musical,” directed by Shelly McCook and costarring Jill Hames, Alyssa Flowers and Wendy Melkonian.
One of her first big challenges in her new role was to pick the 2018-19 season and to find help with artistic matters. Longtime Atlanta actor-director James Donadio has been hired as associate artistic director.
A California native who met her future husband while they studied at Pasadena Playhouse’s College of Theatre Arts in the late ’60s, Farley has always been something of a pragmatist. While they were still in Los Angeles, Bob got a job in San Francisco; Anita worked as flight attendant so she could visit him on the cheap. Because they had seen so many failed marriages in their business, they dated for eight years before making it official. When they had two daughters, Anita, who had planned to pursue an acting career, chose to work in theater management so she could be with her girls at night.
Though she came up at a time when men dominated the field, the conversation has changed: Now it’s her turn.
“I’ll at least stick around for another three years probably, and then maybe we’ll talk about a succession plan and figure out where we will go from there,” she said. “Right now I’m just having the time of my life. I really am. It has really rejuvenated me. I’m learning a new way to work.”
Having previously served as GET’s managing director, her focus now is big picture. She’s delegating minutiae, carving out more time to raise her profile in the community and fostering deeper relationships with artists. “That’s the one thing that will not change about GET: It will always be an artist-centric company,” she said. “It’s a place where people — actors and technicians and designers — can come and work with abandon, and have the opportunity to try new things in a safe place.”
Asked if she might consider a return to the stage in the the near future, the former actress responded with an unequivocal “no.”
“I’m not going to be directing either,” Farley said. “That’s just not my forte. I tell you where my talent lies, and this was always helpful to Bob, is coming in at tech and during that whole week leading up to it and making sure that all the arcs connect and that things are clear. I enjoy doing that, and I’m fairly good at that. So I’ll leave the directing to people who have a degree in that.”
And yet, she’s got ideas about how to improve the art via management. She’s put together a consolidated design team that will collaborate on the sets, costumes, lighting, props and sound of every main stage production. “When I find people that work well together, I think it only gets better over time.”
Meanwhile, GET’s educational component, directed by daughter Laurel Crowe, has expanded its programming. Where it once offered one touring show to schools per season, it now has a menu of four, and is generating good revenue. This year, the education department participated in a cultural-exchange program with China. Staffers visited China and later hosted seven Chinese children at summer camps in Roswell.
The theater, which has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, is looking at growing its footprint, too. While it plans to maintain its home base at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center, it’s in discussions with Oglethorpe University to become a resident company at the theater formerly occupied by Georgia Shakespeare for summer and holiday shows. “It’s going to be challenging. It will mean building a new audience,” Farley says.
Still, the heart of her mission will remain on the Roswell main stage. She says she’d like to showcase edgier work and plays that empower women. “I like to see women in positive roles, and I like to see them in big roles.”
Come to think of it, self-empowerment may well be the defining quality of Anita Allen-Farley’s second act.
“I’m learning to do a lot of things for myself that I didn’t do before,” she says, turning philosophical. “I tell you what I’ve learned: If there’s something you want to do, don’t wait. Don’t wait. Because you never know.” (Bob Farley died before he could complete his final season and begin retirement.)
Her advice: Stay close to the people you love. Seize the day. If a wall is bothering you, knock it down.
“We’ve got two bottles of wine there that I bought Bob for different occasions,” Farley says, pointing to a sideboard. “And he was saving them and saving them, and he never got to drink them.”