By Erin Clossey
Professor Bob Colby had a super power: He could instill confidence.
Sarah Matczak Ploskina, MA ’05, MFA ’20, an artist-in-residence in Theatre Education, first experienced it in 2003, in Colby’s Drama as Education 1 class. As a young aspiring drama teacher, all it took was a well-timed and very specific positive reinforcement from Colby to calm her nerves.
“It was never just ‘Good job,’ or ‘You can do it,’ but something about this explanation, or that activity you chose,” Ploskina recalled. “Add in Bob’s super power, that invisible boost of belief, and suddenly you felt a little more like you imagined he felt at the helm of class: at home.”
Former students, current colleagues, and administrators across the College remember Colby as a “gifted teacher of teachers,” in Emerson’s Performing Arts department, a leader in his field, and a man of strong and loving conviction. He died Monday, April 5, 2021, following a battle with cancer. He was 70.
Colby taught theatre education, theatre for young audiences, and directing over the course of a 44-year career at Emerson, during which he served students and faculty alike as department chair, graduate program director, Faculty Assembly chair and faculty union officer.
“He was an amazing human being, our Bob,” Performing Arts Associate Chair Maureen Shea wrote to her department colleagues in an email Monday. “I say ‘our,’ because he truly belonged to us. Just as we were his. Bob was devoted to Performing Arts.”
Samantha Golub ’21 a Theatre Education and Performance major, said one of her fondest memories of Colby was of him leading students through the “notorious” Greenel Greynel, a process drama and a mainstay of the undergraduate Theatre Education program.
“Although the material was incredibly engaging, it was Bob’s teaching that was in a word, magic,” Golub said. “Bob taught us all to lead with gratitude, compassion, and understanding, and I’ll forever be in awe of his persistence, through both the Performing Arts Department and Emerson College as a whole, for equality and fairness.”
Trish Lindberg ’82 remembered Colby as a “magnificent” teacher.
“To say that he was transformative was an understatement, and I know that I am not the only one to have felt the magic of his brilliance,” she said. “He always seemed to know exactly what to say to raise one up and to help you see what was really important in any given situation.”
‘Unbridled Joy and Enthusiasm’
Shea said entire generations of students considered him one of the best instructors they’d ever had.
“The depth and breadth of his knowledge, his humane values, his commitment to social justice, his unbridled joy and enthusiasm infused everything he said and did,” Shea wrote. “As a leader, colleague, and friend, Bob was always supportive and helpful, a great problem solver because he was a great listener. He was humble, fair, honest, and humane.”
Professor Colby was hired as an instructor in 1977, became an assistant professor in 1982, was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1988, and became a full professor in 2014. He had served as chair of the department since 2018, a role he fulfilled “brilliantly and bravely” throughout his illness, according to a letter to the community from President Lee Pelton and Provost Michaele Whelan.
He led workshops and classes across the country and internationally, and directed productions for young audiences focused on drama, social history, and adaptations of children’s classic literature. His works have been performed at the Kennedy Center and the International Showcase of Performing Arts for Young People in Louisville, Kentucky.
Shea, who co-directed a musical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities with Professor Colby many years ago, and saw every show he directed for the College since she came to Emerson, lauded his collaborative spirit, integrity, commitment to his values, creativity, and passion for the theatre.
‘Persuasive and Persistent’
School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal said one of Colby’s most remarkable attributes was his courage, something that surfaced in different ways over the years, but that always was rooted in his love for Emerson and his strong sense of values.
When Colby took over as chair of Performing Arts, he set out to restructure the department – an incredibly difficult task, but one that Colby felt would make the department stronger and more equitable.
“That meant undoing things that had been done a certain way for decades. He was unafraid of that task, in part, I think… because he had strong values,” Sabal said. “He was also incredibly persuasive and persistent in the best way. He could persuade people of the values he held dear … and he could argue well and with great reason and great passion.”
Assistant Professor and Theatre Education Graduate Program Director Bethany Nelson recalled Colby’s first Faculty Assembly meeting as chair.
Determined to create a more communal feeling among faculty, Colby asked the people responsible for setting up the chairs in the Bordy Theater to arrange them in a U, rather than in the standard rows, so that members could see each other as well as him. He was told that wouldn’t be possible. So he smiled. He pushed – politely, of course.
When faculty arrived to find their chairs in a U, there were “mutters of consternation,” Nelson said, until they saw Colby step to the front of the room. “There was a kind of group, ‘Ohhhhh.’ Of course, it’s Bob.” He started the meeting with a brief game, which was received eagerly by some, grudgingly by others. But everyone engaged.
“And that’s Bob: a genial, friendly Ohio gentleman with a warm greeting for everyone, but an unrelenting commitment to the things he felt were important – connection, shared goals, and a bit of risk-taking, in the classroom and with his colleagues,” Nelson said.
Colby held an MA in Drama Theatre for the Young from Eastern Michigan University and an Ed.D in Human Development from Harvard University Graduate School of Education. His work had been published in Children’s Theatre Review, Youth Theatre Journal, and 2D: Drama/Dance.
He served on the board of directors of the New England Theatre Conference, the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild, and the Children’s Theater Foundation of America, and participated in the development of the Arts Education Research Agenda for the National Endowment of the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education.
Professor Colby was a regional governor and executive board member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, an organization that honored him in July 2020 with the Campton Bell Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2003 with the Lin Wright Special Recognition Award for members who have “established special programs, developed experimental work, made a distinctive educational contribution or provided meritorious service thus furthering theatre and drama for young people.”
Colby’s impact on the Emerson community was recognized in January 2020, when the Spirit of Emerson Committee named its newest College-wide recognition the Robert Colby Kindness Award.
“Although there are many types of kindness, perhaps the one that puts kindness most to the test is a commitment to unlimited support, eternal availability, and selfless service to others, even when facing great adversity,” Spirit of Emerson founder Professor Tom Cooper said upon announcing the award, calling Colby one of Emerson’s “heroes and champions.”
At the time, Professor Colby said he balked at the idea of a kindness award being named for him, because it’s a trait that not everyone is able to embrace freely or express in their own way, Women, he noted, often can’t be kind and considered strong at the same time, and people of color, who need to speak truth to power, are rarely called kind for it.
But he said, he acknowledged that there is a spectrum of kindness – everything from being offered candy at Faculty Assembly, to a kind of “radical kindness” that connects everyone.
“The world moves to a better place if we all work together in radical kindness,” he said.
Colby worked up until two weeks ago, Sabal said, because he wanted to contribute to the department for as long as he could.
“He loved the community, he loved his colleagues, he loved his students – I choose the word ‘love’ purposefully, he loved them. He came from a place of radical love, where he believed you could change things for the better through empathetic acceptance, deep curiosity about others and recognition of the value of other people,” Sabal said.
Professor Colby leaves his wife, Leslie (Rubin) ’79, whom he met at Emerson; and his two children, both Emerson alumni: Allison Colby ’06, MS ’10, and Jonathan Colby ’08. The College plans to hold a celebration of his life at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, remembrances in his memory may be made to Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 1500 Rosencrans Avenue, Suite 200, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266 or ACLU Foundation of MA, 211 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02110.