Remembering a theater ’pillar’

By Eric Gallippo

Many around Lansing will remember Robert “Bob” Gras for his critically acclaimed acting — some for his subtle, smart direction, and others for his welldesigned sets.

But for those like Mike Siracuse, who work behind the scenes to keep Lansing’s community theater scene humming, some of Gras’ most important contributions to local theater happened offstage.

“He’s just been a pillar,” said Siracuse, manager of Riverwalk Theatre. “He’s been one of our core people who has held Riverwalk up, and there is going to be a huge hole having him gone.”

On Aug. 19, the 69-year-old community theater veteran died at Sparrow Hospital following a six-week battle with acute onset leukemia. His wife, Linda; children, Rob and Cassandra Gras; and two grandchildren survive him.

Before retirement, Gras taught drama and English at Eaton Rapids Public Schools.

In addition to acting, directing and set building, Gras also built and maintained Riverwalk’s Web site, and he had volunteered to serve as house manager for the theater’s 2009-’10 black box shows. “He always was the first to volunteer,” Siracuse said. “Since he retired, he would sit at his [computer] at home 24/7 and work on that Web site.”

Local actor and director Ken Beachler echoed Siracuse’s sentiments, calling Gras a “pillar of Lansing theater.” “My admiration for him was unlimited,” Beachler said.

Beachler recalled the feeling of vanishing from the stage when Gras appeared in “The Deputy” at Grand Ledge’s Spotlight Theatre in 1998 “Everyone on stage paled. We disappeared,” he said.

Beachler and another local theater veteran, Bill Helder, remember Gras for casting them in roles they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves and making the parts work for them. “He did everything he could to give you the confidence that in fact you could do this thing,” Helder said. “That is really what a good director can do.”

Although his colleagues point to his versatility, Gras had a passion for Riverwalk’s black box shows; he directed the theater’s first one at the Creole Gallery in 2003, and he was set to direct its first production in its new onsite black box space this fall. Gras was “the spirit of the black box,” Helder said.

Local theater critics recognized Gras for his outstanding work in two Riverwalk black box shows. On June 8, Gras won a City Pulse Pulsar Award for Best Lead Actor in a Play for his role in “The Substance of Fire,” in which he played a tough-willed patriarch set on maintaining control of his family publishing company. A week later, the Lansing State Journal recognized him with a Thespie Award for the same role.

Despite limited mobility from back problems, Gras delivered a compelling, layered performance that inspired critics and colleagues alike. Linda Gras, an actress who has shared the stage with her husband, recalled watching him in “The Substance of Fire.” “He did such a nice job in that last show. I know all the crap he pulls on stage, and he knows all the crap I pull on stage, and I didn’t see any of that stuff up there, and I thought, ‘My God, he’s doing it for real.’”

“His acting in that play just amazed me,” Beachler said. “I thought he was so wonderful, and then five months later he’s gone.”

Gras’ was also recognized, along with Judy Barber, with the Pulsar Award for Best Director of a Play in a community theater production for Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” which also received an award for Best Play (Community).

Those at the awards dinner will remember an enthusiastic Gras, bent over with back problems, smiling all the way to the podium. “I was so happy that night he got those,” Linda Gras said. “I was just thrilled for him.”

A celebration of Gras’ life is to be held at the theater in the near future. Memorial contributions may be made in Gras’ name to Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing, Mich. 48933.