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Sad News About Professor Robert Colby

Dear members of the Emerson community,

It is with great sadness that we write to inform you that Robert (Bob) Colby, beloved faculty member, friend, and Professor and Chair of Performing Arts, passed away early this morning following a courageous battle with cancer. We would like to express our deepest condolences to his family, friends, the theatre and performing arts community at Emerson and beyond, and to all who knew Bob and are heartbroken by his loss.

Professor Colby’s contributions to his field only rival those to his College. He taught theatre education, theatre for young audiences, and directing. He earned his Ed.D. in Human Development from Harvard University Graduate School of Education and his M.A. in Drama Theatre for the Young from Eastern Michigan University. His work has been published in Children’s Theatre ReviewYouth Theatre Journal, 2D: Drama/Dance and in notable works for both practitioners and scholars. His research and creative work informed each other throughout his life:  he led workshops and master classes nationally and internationally, and he directed productions for young audiences that focused on drama, social history, and adaptations of classic children’s literature by the nation’s leading playwrights. His works have been performed at the Kennedy Center and the International Showcase of Performing Arts for Young People in Louisville, Kentucky.  Professor Colby served on the board of directors for the New England Theatre Conference, the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild, and the Children’s Theater Foundation of America.  He served as Regional Governor and executive board member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, and he participated in the development of the Arts Education Research Agenda for the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Department of Education.

Having spent 44 years as a faculty member and leader at Emerson, Professor Colby dedicated much of his life and career to teaching, mentoring, and inspiring multiple generations of theatre and performing artists. In 1977, Professor Colby was hired as an Instructor in the Department of Performing Arts; he became an assistant professor in 1982 and was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1988 and to full professor in 2014. He became the Chair of the Performing Arts department in the summer of 2018. He was deeply committed to his students, fellow faculty members, and the Emerson community, and he served brilliantly and bravely as Chair throughout his illness.

In spring 2020, the Spirit of Emerson Committee named its new Kindness Award after Professor Colby in recognition of his dedication to service and his unstinting collegiality.  After receiving the award, Professor Colby noted with characteristic modesty, “I’m from the Midwest. Kindness is one of the few positive qualities associated with being a Midwesterner, and it’s expected of everyone. It’s a certain kind of kindness that doesn’t need recognition”.

A caring advocate for faculty, Professor Colby served as the head of the Faculty Assembly and president of the Faculty Union. As Maureen Shea, Associate Chair in the Department of Performing Arts, shared in her letter to the performing arts community this morning, he is the only faculty member in the history of the College to have received four Faculty Service Awards and an Emerson community award named after him–a testament to Professor Colby’s extraordinary impact and influence on the College he served for four decades. 

Professor Shea also added that, “Generations of students call Bob the best teacher they ever had. A course with him was life-changing and inspirational. He was brilliant.” Professor Colby had a set of principles that defined his teaching practice.  His central requirement, in his own words, was that “teaching be student-centered, experiential, holistic, authentic, expressive, reflective, social, collaborative, democratic, cognitive, developmental, constructivist and challenging.”

Last year Professor Colby was honored with the Campton Bell Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Alliance for Theatre & Education (AATE) in a virtual ceremony. The award honors an individual for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the field of theatre arts education. In 2003 he was also recognized by the same organization for his contributions to the field of theatre education with the Lin Wright Special Recognition Award. Selected as the 2003 Theatre Educator of the Year and inducted in 2005 into the National Professional Fraternity in Communication Arts and Sciences, Professor Colby also received the Distinguished Arts Educator Advocate Award in Theatre in 2012 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

His achievements were stellar, his talent abundant, his influence far-reaching, and we will miss him greatly. 

Please keep Bob’s family in your thoughts and prayers, including his wife Leslie, and two children, Allison and Jonathan. The College plans to hold a celebration of his life and work at a future date. We will share additional information with the community as soon as we are able. 

Lee Pelton and Michaele Whelan

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