Wednesday, September 2, 2009

R.I.P. Bob Gras

While writing obits were one of my first assignments in journalism back when I was still in junior high and high school, it isn't that common for an arts writer to have to write them. Nor was it common for me to know the people about whom I was writing.

In the past several weeks we've lost two giant in local theater: Bob Gras and Merrill Wyble. I knew, respected, had worked with, and liked both of them. Writing not a tribute, but a feature obituary for them was tougher than I thought it would be.

The obit on Bob Gras appeared last week here. Merrill's obit will appear later this week.

I'm going to once again take advantage of my blog to "publish" that which had to be cut because of space. The cuts are from various points in the story--not from all one place, so I'm just going to reprint the whole thing here.

On Aug. 19, the Lansing theater community lost one of its stalwart supporters and creative drivers.

Robert Gras, age 69, died from complications of acute leukemia after being on life support for more than a month. A retired Eaton Rapids Public Schools English and drama teacher, Gras is survived by wife Linda, children Robert Gras and Cassandra Gras, and two grandchildren.

Gras performed for community theaters throughout the Lansing area and led the drama program in Eaton Rapids schools. He was a driving force behind Riverwalk’s Black Box theater. In 2009, he performed in the final Black Box production at the Creole, “Substance of Fire,” for which he won a Best Lead Actor Thespie from the Lansing State Journal and a Best Lead Actor Pulsar from the City Pulse.

“Bob hadn’t been onstage all that much in the last few years because of his back condition,” said Bill Helder, the director of Substance of Fire. “Seeing what a good actor he is reminded people of some of the earlier things he had done. Bob really could do everything. Before he developed his back problems, he could design sets and build them. He was a super director and was wonderful to be on stage with.”

Former students Terry Jones and Wendy Fall both spoke highly of his teaching and how he inspired them.

Jones first met Gras 38 years ago in 7th grade when his teacher introduced them. Gras promptly cast him in a high school production.

“In the years after that, we formed quite a bond,” Jones said. “I was cast in every show that he did. I always got the lead if it was a non-musical. If it was a musical, I got the dominant non-singing role.”

Then during Jones’ senior year, Gras overruled the music teacher and cast Jones as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Jones lost contact with Gras until 1990, when he was cast as the title character in the first show that Gras directed at Riverwalk—Tartuffe.

“He went from teacher to mentor to friend,” Jones said. “He was a good guy. He knew his stuff.”

Fall said she still benefits from the motto Gras constantly repeated in his English classes: “Eschew obfuscation.”

“He wanted us to be precise,” Fall said, saying he was vigilant about removing all unnecessary words from their essays. She also said that he lit a passion for Shakespeare and great literature in his students. “He would get up and read it in his big booming voice with all his theatrical talent. It was incredible. When you’re a high school student, Shakespeare doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when he read it and brought the text to life for us, it was never the same. That was his particular talent.”

Playwright Eileen O’Leary described how Gras championed her new work, fighting to get its world premiere launched at Lansing Civic Players in 1999.
She had sent Gras a copy of her play “The Siege of Ennis.” He read it and wanted to direct it. At first, the LCP board resisted, saying that the financial risk of a new work by a new playwright was too great.

“Bob Gras told them that if they didn’t let him direct ‘The Siege of Ennis,’ he wasn’t going to direct any other play,” O’Leary said. “So they relented and put it on. I had never had anyone do anything like that for me before. He championed it and he put his neck out for it.”

O’Leary said that the production was gorgeous. She also said that she saw the financials after the show—and it made money.

“He was a real class act who would stand up for what he believed in. I thought he was fantastic,” O’Leary said. “He didn’t know me, but he liked the play and he didn’t want anyone to not allow him to put it on for a reason that was just financial. It was a wonderful thing to do for someone no one knew. Most people don’t stick up for others like that. He was amazing.”

Gras’ support continued to be inspirational to O’Leary. “I kept writing plays and I probably would have stopped writing because I was sort of at an impasse.”

Helder, who first met Gras during “The Crucible” in 1993 at Grand Ledge’s Spotlight, said Gras’ death is a real loss for Riverwalk.

“He really had taken the black box under his wing. He was the director of the first show in the black box at the Creole and starred in the last show. There is a certain symmetry there,” Helder said. “He was scheduled to open our first season in the new location with a Chekov piece.”

The Chekov piece has now been canceled.

“To the general public, (Gras will be) most remembered for the number of really solid shows that he directed,” said Helder. “He will be remembered as the kind of director that could direct everything: from a crazy farce like Noises Off to something like Hedda Gabler and on to something like Under Milkwood, which is really poetry on stage. He will be remembered for the variety of things that he could and all of them well.”

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