Delivering memorable theater – and beautiful moments – is his calling. Meet this inspiring talent, who’s spent three decades sharing his passion with his hometown.
When Mike Webb was a graduate student at Michigan State University, one of his theater professors predicted the Rockford native would have a long and successful career as a New York director. There was only one problem: Webb didn’t want to go to New York. He wanted to come back home to Rockford and make a difference in his community at Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre.
“This was a career choice of mine, and it has special meaning to do it in my hometown,” he says. “Why shouldn’t we have the best possible theater we can? Why shouldn’t I have full houses every night? Why shouldn’t I favorably compare my stuff to productions in New York or Chicago? I have the talent pool to do the same thing. I have no regrets about not going to New York.”
For the past 28 years, Webb has been the only producer and director of theater that the college has known. During winter months, he spends most of his time in the intimate Studio Theatre; during summer months, he’s usually in the Bengt Sjostrom Theatre, producing a Starlight Theatre event. When he’s not directing a production, Webb is teaching theater classes, traveling to New York City to negotiate play rights, glad-handing donors or helping with theater-related projects in the community.
It’s all a labor of love for Webb, who enjoys reminiscing about memorable moments of theater, both beautiful and shocking. He chuckles and points toward the stage repeatedly, reliving his favorite productions, as well as plays that didn’t go so well. Labor of love or not, it’s been a lot of work. Once auditions for Starlight begin in March, Webb and his staff log 16-hour days for the next three months.
“He’s totally committed to this theater,” says Tom Hunter, who’s acted for Webb since 1995 and served as associate producer for the past nine years. “I don’t know anyone who works as many hours as Mike does. He’s focused on making this the best theater possible.”
To Webb, theater offers the audience an escape rarely matched by other art forms. “The thing about theater is that it’s live,” he says. “There’s a chemistry. You buy a ticket, or a season ticket, anticipating a great experience that you share with significant others and with other random people. It’s organic. You take your seat, the lights go down, the actors come out, and you’re willing to go with whatever they do, as long as they fulfill the promise. There’s a smell, a texture to it, and the potential that something could go wrong. It becomes a reference point in your life. That’s what theater does best. It gives you things that you can hold on to.”
And it belongs to the realm of teamwork. Webb’s made many close friends through his work and even enjoys a special closeness with his family because of it. Kathie, his longtime partner, designed all the costumes for Rock Valley for 25 years. Son Josh, 29, a graphic designer, and Marissa, 26, a photographer, have performed in various RVC productions through the years. Josh has designed production logos and brochures, and Marissa has been the theater’s photographer.
Webb’s youngest, 18-year-old Kaitlin, also shares her dad’s passion for theater, from the vantage point of one with a lifelong disability. When she was three, Kaitlin was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that leads to developmental issues, especially those related to language and hand use. Rett syndrome occurs mostly in girls and affects about one out of 10,000 children.
Wheelchair-bound and mute, Kaitlin has always enjoyed coming to the theater and spending time with her dad, the actors and other volunteers. She’s particularly fond of musicals.
“She’s just a sweet child,” says Webb. “She’s a very aware, loving and pure soul.”
Like many people in his audience, Webb finds therapy in theater. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. At 49, the news caught him off-guard, especially since he had no family history. But, as they say in the business, the show must go on.
“Theater can have a significant impact on people’s lives,” he says. “Even my own.”
Webb possessed a theatrical spirit at an early age. In the 1970s, when he attended Rockford West High School, Webb directed the student production of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. He also volunteered to be Chief Wahoo, the school’s mascot, for a year. It wasn’t uncommon to see him dressed in feathers and war paint, riding horseback to bonfires and football games. Webb also volunteered to build sets for Starlight productions. When Neil Thackaberry, who was Starlight’s director in the early 1980s, needed someone to lead Evita in 1985, he turned to Webb. The production was a great success.
Following high school, Webb did his undergraduate studies at Rockford College, before moving on to Michigan State University, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in Theater Directing.
When Thackaberry left Rock Valley in 1985, the college turned to Webb. After he was hired full-time, Webb’s first order of business was to meet with then-college president Karl Jacobs, who quickly became a mentor. “He wanted me to mold the program into something special,” Webb says. “He told me that it was my job to get as many people on campus as possible, by attending our performances. He wanted to build a cultural identity for people of Rockford and I took him at his word.”
Thanks to Webb’s vision, passion and dedication, Rock Valley’s theater program has reached new heights. During his tenure, the Starlight subscriber base has grown significantly, from 17,000 to more than 40,000.
“If you put it in classroom terms, he has 40,000 students a year,” says Mike Mastroianni, associate vice president at Rock Valley, who has written five original plays with Webb. “He’s had the opportunity to do many cool things and has made this grow into what it is. Remember, Starlight used to be on a stage, out in the open, with lawn chairs. There might have been a couple of spotlights on actors. To go from that to building the Bengt Sjostrom Theatre, his vision has kept him excited. It’s been a good run.”
Webb’s influence is all the more impressive when one considers the fate of other local theater programs, such as New American Theater (NAT), which closed its doors despite a stellar reputation. Many of NAT’s assets, such as set and wardrobe pieces and archives, were donated to Webb and Starlight, thanks in part to Webb’s longevity and reputation within the local arts community.
“This town has always met the challenge,” Webb says. “When I run out of material, fabric or props, someone always calls and says they have something. And it’s always exactly what I’m looking for. It’s been pretty remarkable.”
Webb refers to his plays as cultural mileposts – events that have high impact on their audiences. Take Wings, a story about a mother’s stroke, written by Arthur Kopit. People still thank Webb, who was in eighth grade when his grandmother suffered her own stroke, for producing such a heartfelt play.
“He keeps the bar high for everyone,” associate producer Hunter says. “I don’t know how many people tell us, ‘We saw it in London, we saw it in New York, we saw it in Chicago, and this was just as good.’ He’s willing to take some risks, because he’s created success here.”
And then there are the actors, stagehands and other volunteers behind the scenes. Webb has worked with hundreds of them, including some who’ve enjoyed national stardom, like Stephen Wargo, Jodi Benson, Joe Coots, Joe Mantello and Dean McNaughton.
“For those who know what they’re doing, he lets them go. He’s an actor’s director,” Hunter explains. “But with bigger and less experienced casts, he breaks it down and makes it simple, so they get it right. He likes taking a chance and helping folks.”
And he’s not afraid to stand up for others. Webb admits he’s sensitive about criticism of his own work, but hates it even more when blame is misplaced at the feet of others. “I get paid for what I do,” he says. “But the actors are volunteers. They do what I ask them to do. If you want to take a shot at me, go for it. I can take it. I’m my own worst critic. Believe me, I’ll be the first to tell you if something’s not working.”
Not every production goes off without a hitch, and some problems are out of Webb’s control, as was the case in the 1999 production of Julius Caesar, when a volunteer actor brought a real knife to the performance. Webb, who was playing the role of Caesar, was in the process of being “stabbed” by other performers during a rehearsal, when the knife-wielding actor was apprehended by two other actors, as his malicious intentions became apparent. The actor was removed by police and banned from the campus, no harm done. Still, Webb wore a bulletproof vest and was under police protection for the next several months.The bizarre incident earned national attention on The Tonight Show. “This is theater,” Webb says. “It’s supposed to be pretend.”
Still, good memories far outweigh the bad ones. Webb calls Hamlet “the most beautiful thing we’ve done.” Other memorable plays include Children of Eden, a two-act musical play by Stephen Schwartz, based on the Book of Genesis; Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy; and Phantom of the Opera, which opened Starlight’s 45th season last summer.
Webb recently fulfilled a longtime dream to direct the complete works of Shakespeare. He directed all 36 plays in the original collection, called the First Folio, over a span of 22 years. “I was afraid to say I was going to do them all, when I started the project, because that was too daunting of a task,” he says. “I wanted to get Shakespeare out of the classroom and put him on stage, where he belongs. He contributed so much to the English language, and he’s seldom given credit for all that he did.”
Webb is gearing up for the 46th season of Starlight Theatre, which runs from June to August. This year’s lineup includes Sweeney Todd, a musical thriller; Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel; Into the Woods, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale; and 9 to 5, a humorous story of friendship and revenge. The upcoming season has Webb feeling both exhilarated and uneasy. “The stuff that happens here is remarkable,” he says. “But it can be overwhelming.”
Webb has more works on his bucket list, including the daunting big-cast musicals Les Miserables and Starlight Express. He also has four productions left to produce in the Agatha Christie collection. He plans to redo some Shakespeare plays and to produce The Two Noble Kinsmen, an extant comedy the Bard of Avon wrote with playwright John Fletcher. He would also like to do the “lost” play, Cardenio, recently “discovered” and credited to Shakespeare.
“People say to me, how are you going to top yourself?” Webb muses. “That’s the point, isn’t it? To get better every time you do something – to learn from what you’ve done. After last year, people said ‘Can you top Rent?’ Just watch me.”
Perhaps his greatest work has yet to reach the stage. Webb is busy writing a musical inspired by daughter Kaitlin’s life and struggle with Rett syndrome. His goal is to finish it within a year and to debut it in the Studio Theatre. It’s a difficult but important story for Webb to tackle. “If I do nothing else to celebrate those with special needs, I want to help people understand that there is value in the differences they have.”
The same goes for people battling cancer. After keeping his own experience with prostate cancer private for many years, Webb is finally starting to open up about it. He says he finds unexpected comfort and strength by helping others, especially men experiencing similar challenges.
Oscar Wilde raised eyebrows and sparked debate when he reversed the wisdom of great philosophers by writing in his essay, “The Decay of Lying,” that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Wilde added that “The self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression and Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.”
Philosophers may argue about what comes first – art or life. But when the lights come up, the curtain rises, and audience members settle back into their seats, the energy really does give us special moments to hold on to. And for Mike Webb, it’s all about making more of those beautiful moments. ❚