The king of theater

Posted on Sep 1, 2014

Originally published in 2011.

Mike WebbWhen Rock Valley College Theater Director Mike Webb was a graduate student at Michigan State University, his peers predicted the Rockford native would have a long and prosperous career as a New York director.  There was only one problem: he didn’t want to go to New York.  He wanted to return home and make an impact in his community at Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theater.

Starlight Theatre has always felt like home to Webb, dating back to high school.  He started as a teenage volunteer before being hired on to build sets.  When director Neil Thackaberry needed someone to lead Evita, he turned to Webb.  And when Thackaberry left the program in 1985, Webb answered the call again.  For the last 26 years, Webb has been the only producer and director of theater RVC has ever known.

“People say to me, ‘how are you going to top yourself?’ 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.”

Webb recently fulfilled a lifetime dream to direct the complete works of Shakespeare, and he has four more plays to complete the entire collection of Agatha Christie as well.

“It’s really been amazing.  This was a career choice of mine and it has special meaning to direct the complete works of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in my hometown.  I want to build a cultural identity for people.  Theater can have an impact on people’s lives.

When I was hired, I had a long talk with President Karl Jacobs.  He saw Starlight as a way for the community to get involved with Rock Valley College.  He wanted me to mold the program into something.  Karl said to me, ‘your job is to get as many people on campus as possible.’ I took him at his word.”

Mike Mastroianni, Associate Vice President, Outreach, Rock Valley College, has collaborated on five original plays with Webb.  “During Mike’s time here, Starlight’s subscriber base has grown significantly from 17,000 to more than 40,000.  That’s impressive when you consider the struggles of other theater programs; and if you put it in classroom terms, he has 40,000 students a year.

He’s very creative, serious about his work and has a great sense of humor.  He’s thoughtful and he’s a problem solver.”

Mike Webb “Our productions are mileposts–events that have a high impact on the audience. Like Wings, a story about a father’s stroke written by Arthur Kopit: people still thank me for producing such a heart-felt play.  I was in eighth grade when my grandmother suffered her own stroke.

Other memorable plays include, Children of Eden, a two-act musical play by Stephen Schwartz and based on the Book of Genesis, Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and The Phantom of the Opera, which opened our 45th season.  That has been our largest production ever.”

Tom Hunter, Starlight Theater Associate Producer, “He’s totally committed to this theater; I don’t know anyone who works like Mike does.  he’s focused on making this the best theater he can.

He keeps the bar high for everyone.  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 is willing to take some risks because he’s created success here.

For someone who knows what they’re doing, he lets them go.  He’s an actor’s director.  For a lot of people, especially with bigger casts with not much experience, he breaks it down and makes it simple so they get it right.  he likes taking a chance and helping folks.”

Mike Webb “To get the best people you have to treat them as professionals; you have to respect their time.  We always start rehearsals on time.  We run the theater professionally, which has endeared many of the professionals.  It’s like being on a team.  You try to get everyone focused on winning the game.”

Mike Mastroianni “He’s had a vision.  He’s had the opportunity to do many cool things, and has made this grow into what it is.  Remember, it 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, the vision has kept him excited.  It’s been a good run.”

Mike Webb “Starlight is important to me.  Now, when people have guests from out of town, they bring them to Starlight.  That was the idea when this world-class venue was built.  Why shouldn’t we have the best possible theater we can?  Why shouldn’t we have full houses every night?  Why shouldn’t we compare our work to productions in Chicago or New York?

We have the talent pool to do remarkable things.

I have no regrets about not going to New York.”


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