Bob and Carmen Farley haven’t been with the Spokane Children’s Theatre for all of its 59 years of existence.
Just most of it.
Since 1974, they have directed shows, produced shows, written shows and built sets.
Bob is the board president, as well as the de facto office manager, which means they can add one more job to their credits.
“I’m the one in the office, selling tickets,” he said.
Two Spokane Children’s Theatre alumni, Scott Wise and Cheyenne Jackson, are appearing on Broadway, in “Movin’ On” and “All Shook Up,” respectively.
Meanwhile, hundreds, if not thousands, of Spokane kids have developed a lifetime love of theater – including the Farleys’ own two children.
The upcoming Spokane Children’s Theatre production, “The Great Cross Country Race,” holds particular significance in the Farleys’ lives, since it’s the first show they ever worked on, three decades ago. Carmen was the director and Bob was the producer.
They were new to the SCT board, and searched hard to find a fresh and funny script. They found a hilarious treatment of Aesop’s classic story of the tortoise and the hare, filled with dry British humor and old-fashioned slapstick.
They grabbed the script and (pardon the expression) ran with it.
“We ran the race up and down the aisles of the theater and as the race got more frantic, the kids would try to stop the hare,” said Carmen. “We had to be careful that he didn’t lose his tail, because the kids would be grabbing for it as he ran down the aisle.”
The hare, by the way, was played by their son Jon. They had lured him into local theater a few years earlier.
“Jon was into science and that kind of thing, so I bribed him one summer to go to an acting class given by the Spokane Civic Theatre,” said Carmen. A drama major at Whitworth College, she had appeared in several Civic shows before she was married.
“He said, ‘I don’t know whether I’ll like it.’ I said, ‘If you hate it, you can quit.’ But I bribed him with something he really wanted, which was the Beatles ‘White Album.’
“He went and loved it. We never got him out of the theater again.”
Daughter Jan also became hooked on theater. Their parents were jealous.
“We were driving the kids to these rehearsals all of the time,” said Bob. “We said, ‘The kids are down at the theater having all of this fun, and we’re just sitting here?’ “
So they started volunteering on shows as well, which led to their appointment to the board and their involvement with “The Great Cross Country Race.”
Soon the whole family was pitching in on show after show.
“Bob produced, I directed, our son would do the tech work and our daughter ran the lights,” said Carmen.
“We called ourselves The Four Farleys,” said Bob.
Before long, the Farleys were doing more than producing the children’s plays. They were writing them.
Frustrated with a dearth of good scripts in the 1970s, Carmen and Jon spent a long family car trip writing their own version of “Snow White.” It ended up being produced in Seattle as well as Spokane. Carmen went on to write four more scripts with various local collaborators.
The Spokane Children’s Theatre has evolved in many ways since its first 1945-46 season. In the early days, performances were at the Orpheum Theater, where they began at 10 a.m. so that the Abbott and Costello film matinee could start on time.
Shows later moved to the Post Street Theater, the Fox Theater, and then in the 1960s to the Civic Theatre. This season, three out of the five shows have been staged at the Spokane Community College Lair Auditorium, to avoid scheduling conflicts at the Civic.
The casts were almost entirely children in the old days; now, they are a mix of adults and children.
“We try to cast according to type, adults playing adults, kids playing kids,” said Bob. It makes for a stronger show and the children in the cast can learn from the more experienced adults.
The audiences have more adults as well.
“When we were first involved, the parents drove up in front of the theater, the kids got out, and the parents drove somewhere else,” said Carmen.
Today, the SCT is billed as family theater, as much fun for the parents as for the kids. Audiences average about 65 percent kids, 35 percent adults.
The Farleys say that children’s theater isn’t just fun; it’s also an education for both cast and audience.
“Once a child gets out there on the stage and gets that instant appreciation from the audience, boy, that’s good for the ego,” said Bob, 78. “It really builds their self-confidence. They also learn teamwork and commitment.”
Meanwhile, the young audience is learning about the power of live theater and the power of the spoken word.
“We’re working with good literature, mainly,” said Carmen, 75. “We try to use good scripts.”
Theater has enriched the Farleys’ lives in many ways. In fact, they were thrown together because of theater while both were students at Whitworth. Carmen, a drama major, asked Bob to be her house manager for her senior drama recital, “Medea.”
They married in 1953. Bob was hired as a math and science teacher in Tonasket, Wash., for five years and then returned to Spokane to teach the same subjects at Saint George’s School. He became the high school principal there for 14 years. Carmen came in to direct some of the school’s plays.
Bob returned to the classroom at Saint George’s in 1977, but not in math and science.
“After so many years of teaching geometry, he’d had it,” said Carmen.
He became a humanities teacher and started the drama department, which he continued until his retirement in 1989.
“I liked Act Two a lot better,” said Bob, who also took on some acting roles at the Civic.
Their son Jon, who once had to be bribed, now makes a living in theater. He lives in Portland and designs computerized lighting. Among his jobs: Designing the lighting software for “Starlight Express” on Broadway.
This week, the Farleys are feeling a rush of nostalgia over the upcoming production of “The Great Cross Country Race.”
Carmen is not directing this version; Buddy Todd and Angela Snyder are sharing directing duties. Yet it’s the same show, on the same stage as their first children’s theater show three decades ago.
“We have wonderful memories of that show,” said Carmen. “We had more fun with that play probably than with any other one.”
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