Late performing arts chair leaves behind legacy of empathy


Courtesy Emerson College

Chair of the Performing Arts Department Bob Colby, who died April 5, 2021

By Camilo Fonseca, Editor-at-large

After 44 years at Emerson, students and colleagues fondly recalled Robert Colby as a committed theatre practitioner, a trusted mentor, and by many, a valued friend.

The longtime faculty member served as chair of Emerson’s performing arts department from 2018 until his death from pancreatic cancer early Monday morning, at the age of 70. Colby taught courses in theater education, theater for young audiences, and directing for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

The news of his death spurred an outpouring of grief on social media, as those who knew him paid tribute to their late instructor. One post on the Emerson Mafia, a Facebook group of alumni and current students, garnered 45 comments and over 200 reactions.

“There’s just page after page after page of tributes to him from students,” Assistant Professor Bethany Nelson said. “Again, and again, you hear the same thing: ‘He made me the teacher I am today,’ ‘He changed my life,’ ‘He made me a different person,’ That would be the legacy he wanted to leave. The legacy left for young people in classrooms, that’s where his heart lay.”

Nelson, who succeeded Colby as director of the theatre education graduate program, attended Emerson as an undergraduate student in 1979 where she first met Colby—who was then a 28-year old instructor fresh out of Eastern Michigan University. 

“I’ve known him for 42 years—and of those, we were close friends for about 35 of them,” Nelson said.

Lecturing alongside Colby for much of his time at Emerson, Nelson experienced his commitment to the field of theater education first hand. “Bob,” as he was called by faculty and students, rose from adjunct professor to tenured instructor to faculty union president to an administrator during his tenure at the college. In the process, his teaching earned him numerous accolades.

Despite his recognition within the Emerson community and beyond, Colby never grew complacent, Nelson said.

“He was driven by the idea that there was always more to do—that his job was to make the world a better place, and there was no point at which you go, ‘I’ve done enough,’” she said. “There was always the next thing that he could contribute to, to make positive change in the world.”

When Colby expressed to her that he felt he hadn’t done enough, Nelson estimated the number of students he had personally directed or mentored over the course of his near-half-century at Emerson.

“Not counting the audiences that saw his [own] work or the people his students impacted, he personally impacted 3,500 educators and artists that he sent out into the world,” Nelson said. “That’s an astounding fingerprint.”

In addition to his administrative and academic duties, Colby also directed various productions for Emerson Stage. Keenly aware of social justice issues, he pushed for a theater beyond the canon—one that reflected the divisions of color, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomics that he saw in society.

To this end, Colby brought in a diverse selection of material, often relying on marginalized voices from different countries, races, and creeds. According to former student KT Grindeland ‘16, he practiced gender-inclusive and color-conscious casting “before there were words for it.”

“It’s not like he just taught about equity,” Nelson added. “His whole life was about equity. His understandings of race equity and class equity were very deep, and informed virtually every word that came out of his mouth.”

“He used to say teaching is a political act; what you choose to bring to your students determines what they’ll take from it,” she continued. “His push was always to produce the society we wanted to see; that was the focus of his teaching.”

Colby’s social awareness was central to his teaching, even for areas like Theatre for Young Audiences—productions that, according to former student Ally MacLean ‘19, are too often dismissed as “childish” or “unserious” theater.

“There’s always a slight stigma that it’s only for little kids, that you’re not going to get much out of the experience if you’re an adult going to see it or participating in any way,” MacLean said. “Bob took that idea and completely flipped it on its head. He made sure there was always something for everybody to learn.”

Colby’s storied career in theater education spans multiple generations, said Grindeland, who graduated as an acting and theatre education major.

“I was affected by his work before I even came to Emerson, because one of my teachers in the theater department was taught by him,” Grindeland said. “It’s the reason I went to theater school—for a lot of people, that’s why.”

Colby’s reputation—one of passion, empathy, and good humor—was by that point well established, Grindeland said. They recalled one episode from their senior year, a final act of desperation to act in “a Bob Colby show” before they left Emerson.

“I pretended I could play the harmonica because it was a society that needed actors that [could play] music—I can’t, but I put it on my list,” Grindeland said. “He called me in for a call back and had me play. I did so bad—really bad. And he just laughed and cast me anyway.”

Colby’s vote of confidence came at a crucial point in their senior year, Grindeland said, and helped push them to commit to acting as a career. Yet it is the experience of acting under the “legendary” director that Grindeland remembers most fondly.

“I’ve been working professionally for five years now. I’ve done regional tours, I’ve done national tours. I’ve done shows at big playhouses,” they said. “Playing Lucy the Dog for him was the most joy I have ever felt on stage to this day. That’s just the type of space he built.”

More than anything else, Grindeland said, Colby’s personality was what shone through his interactions with his students—many of whom would go on to become theater educators in their own right.

“He just wanted to be kind and generous and as good as he could be,” Grindeland said. “When you see that coming from a teacher who’s teaching you how to teach, you bring that to the kids you end up teaching.”

Nelson said Colby’s personality was itself paradoxical, blending his strong political sensibilities with a Midwestern kindness and consideration. For students like MacLean, the first impression of him was that of a shy, introverted “little Ohio gentleman.”

“My favorite moment in any semester was the first time he’d swear,” Nelson said. “The students would just be muttering to each other, ‘Oh my God.’ It was always fun to watch. He was a direct, quiet, profane, passionate, human—and when that came out, you could see the students embrace him even more.”

Colby’s empathy for students was evident outside of the classroom, even for those students whom he never instructed directly. Christopher Streat, an undergraduate theater and performance major, was burdened with student debt in the fall of 2018. His attempts to graduate early were stymied by the performing arts administration on a credit hour technicality—until what he described as Colby’s “organic and spontaneous” intervention.

“[Colby] walks into the room and says, ‘Come to my office, let’s talk it through,’” Streat said. “I told him how the other faculty were pissed; they were telling me no and I was pushing back pretty hard. He says, ‘Give me a second,’ and goes into the other room. I don’t know what he said to them, what kind of magic he had. But they all walked out all of a sudden and he said, ‘Merry Christmas, you’ve graduated from Emerson College.’”

“He was a very busy man,” Grindeland said. “But he made space for everyone and made you feel special. The idea that there’s a Bob-sized hole in the world feels really wrong—because he was such a one-off person. I don’t think there will ever be anyone like him again.”