Near West Theatre’s Longtime Artistic Director Ready For Final Curtain Call
When actors and audience members enter Near West Theatre in February, a familiar face won’t be there. Bob Navis, Jr. came to the theater in 1980, two years after its founding, and became its first artistic director in 1993. He is now retiring.
During his long run at Near West, Navis worked closely with theater founder Stephanie Morrison Hrbek (she retired in 2017). The two knew each other before they worked together at Near West. It was an emergency that brought them together.
“Stephanie was teaching at (Cleveland) Central Catholic and she was running a theater program that was doing “Guys and Dolls.” I got a call at Erieview Catholic, where I was music director, that was kind of frantic. They had lost their musical director a week before the show was opening. The guy went on a bender and disappeared. She wanted someone who could step in to play the score. I said, ‘I’m good at sight-reading, I can do that,’ and that is how it started,” Navis said.
From the beginning, Navis knew he had found a kindred spirit in Morrison Hrbek.
“I went to Central Catholic and opened the auditorium door. Stephanie was up onstage with all these kids. There was something about her energy and vibrancy and the way she was working with them that I have often said I felt like it was a telescopic kind of thing. I felt like I was watching myself. There was something about what she was doing that resonated with the way I understood theater and music and community work. It was just kind of a love affair that started there,” Navis said.
Navis and Morrison Hrbek shared similar ideas about a theater that would be community oriented, take a diverse approach to casting, and be a welcoming place for people who were new to theater.
“There really was a sense that folks coming initially probably had little if any theater at all in their lives, however there was an energy from the very beginning. It started with ‘someone I know and love is in this show.’ After the shows began to be talked about as being powerful, then the art started to matter also,” Navis said.
[photo: Near West Theatre]
Navis said that Near West has a dual mission and the components can often be a challenge to make happen.
“One, of course, is good theater, that matters to us. We work with quality designers. We’re always looking to push the bar on what the show looks like and the integrity of all the parts of it. The other thing is the social justice, activism, bringing folks from diverse places that most likely would not sit together, much less go together on a creative process that calls them to be as intimate as this does,” Navis said.
In order to achieve that mission, especially with actors often have little to no experience, Navis has his casts engage in what he calls “leveling the playing field” before lines are learned and scenes are blocked.
“In the first few weeks, as we explore the story of a show we spend a lot of time listening to each other’s stories. Tell us the story of your life. What are the highs and lows? What do you struggle with? What are some things you would term as your successes? That personal storytelling is foundational. The remarkable thing that I’ve discovered over the years is that when the cast becomes that close, because of the risks they’ve taken together, it has an automatic, effortless effect on the production. It’s a dance that works beautifully in the end.”
Why is February 2019 the right time for Navis to retire?
“Because I’m tired,” Navis said, laughing. “I’ve been directing these huge productions and 90 percent of those shows, I was also the music director, which is an unusual pairing. It takes a lot of energy. I stopped musically directing a few years ago, because it was just too much. Plus, part of it is just that inner knowing or intuition that it is time to see what is on the other side."
However, after all these years of spending countless hours directing countless shows, Navis admits some uncertainty about what his life will be without Near West Theatre being a constant presence.
“To tell you the truth life without it, I can’t even imagine. It does feel like I’m walking into an abyss on some levels. Although I do have all these friendships and support, I’ll always be tied to this theatre, I’ll always want to be there and barge into rehearsals which I’m doing right now, although I’m not directing the show (“Anyone Can Whistle”).
Hear Navis Jr talk about his approach to casting, the excitement of Near West’s move to a new home in 2015 and why he’s spent his life following his passion