Artistic director Robert Walsh begins his fourth season at the Gloucester Stage Company this week. You sense he will be always addressing the same question, even if he stays on the job for four more decades.
How to move forward at the well-respected summer theater, after the devastating allegations of sexual predation against founder Israel Horovitz this past fall?
The work of Walsh, along with managing director Jeff Zinn, has been uniformly admired by theater professionals, theater critics and theater audiences since they took over in 2015. It seems patently unfair that their tenure should be overshadowed by the allegations of destructive behavior by Horovitz.
But it is part of the job, and Walsh knows it.
“We have to articulate who we are, and what we want to be,” he says. “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.”
Walsh is right on every count. GSC management has owned it—right from the beginning, with an announcement from board president Liz Neumeier acknowledging the allegations, apologizing to victims, and addressing the fact that allegations brought forth in the mid-’90s—long before any current management personnel were involved—had been ignored.
And 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.
“It’s part of our regimen now,” he says of the protocols. “We display it for our actors, and read it beforehand. And time is spent in the opening rehearsals, going over the specifics. People have been afraid to come forward, afraid of being ostracized, and now they have resources.”
Still, it might be many years before talking about an upcoming season—which has already begun with a world premiere of Wendy Kesselman’s “Madame Defarge”—focuses simply on the plays, and not on the backstage behavior of Horovitz.
“We only have six plays a year,” Walsh says, “but we continue to look for works by women authors, and there are plenty of women directors we use as well. We are folding that into our thinking, and being mindful of contemporary issues. We want to create more opportunities for women, and for people of color.
“We like having living playwrights in the process,” he says, “and expanding our network. John Kolvenbach, who was here last year 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.”
This season is full of potential. Kesselman’s musical—a re-imaging of the life of Dickens’ famous character—kicks it off, running through June 2. Then director Benny Sato Ambush and GSC favorite Lindsay Crouse team up in Brian Friel’s Irish drama “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a Tony Award winner.
Walsh himself directs “Cyrano,” another update, this time of Rostand’s 19th-century play. “It’s my station in life,” Walsh says jokingly, “to do swashbucklers. I like directing plays that challenge me.”
In August GSC presents its first-ever Sam Shepard play, the great “True West.” “It’s hard to believe we’ve never staged one,” Walsh says of the American playwright, who died last year. Joe Short directs the rocking narrative of two distinctly different brothers. The New England premiere of Mat Smart’s “The Agitators,” directed by Jacqueline Parker, tells of the true-life—but uneven—friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
And the final work of the GSC season, opening Oct. 12, has a real local flavor. “My Station in Life,” a look at the idiosyncratic career and gruff personality of radio host Simon Geller, who ran Cape Ann’s WVCA for several decades, is written by Gloucester’s own Ken Riaf.
“It grew out of a Never Dark reading from last year,” Walsh says, referring to GSC’s workshop reading series. “It had a huge response when we did it then, and Ken is working hard on more revisions.”
The Gloucester Stage Company’s 2018 season has opened with the world premiere of Wendy Kesselman’s “Madame Defarge,” running through June 2 at the Gorton Theatre, 267 East Main St., East Gloucester. For tickets and information visit www.gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.