When chief executive Chris Griffith announced that the not-for-profit Gloucester Stage Company had received $500,000 to establish the Robert Natti Fund, he made no secret of what the windfall would mean for Cape Ann’s ‘cultural gem’, 40 years old.
“I’m honored by this gift, it’s such a vote of confidence,” he said, calling it a “game changer.”
Griffith, who joined the theater 4½ years ago, became a game-changer himself during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. By partnering and pooling government funding with Lisa Hahn, Director of the Windhover Performing Arts Center in Rockport, he kept Gloucester Stage alive on Windhover’s outdoor stage, attracting a record 10,000 people to watch in full. safety of theater and dance performances during the summer of 2020.
“It was amazing,” said Allan Willsky, who along with his wife – Robert Natti’s daughter, Susanna Natti – offered the $500,000.
Willsky, who had just joined the Stage Company board in 2020, saw pivot Griffith save the day. As quaint and historic as they are, Windhover’s exterior structures needed a lot of work, Willsky said, and Griffith rolled up his sleeves and went for it. “I would go to Windhover and Chris would work there. ‘You’ve swapped a spreadsheet for a scrap sheet!’ I told him.”
The $500,000, Willsky said, is a reward for a job extraordinarily well done.
It is also a tribute to her late father-in-law, Robert Natti, “the most generous man I have ever met”. The longtime Lanesville resident and son of a Finnish immigrant is best known as a Cape Ann educator, including more than 39 years as principal of Gloucester High and later West Parish Elementary schools.
Although he had already put on an impressive performance as the ghost of Hamlet, Robert Natti, who died in 2000, was not officially an actor, but by all accounts he was a ham. He loved the theatre. He loved to tell stories, especially when the audience consisted of children. And, said his daughter Susanna Natti – who herself illustrated some 50 children’s books – he retained a childlike spirit during the 83 years of his highly productive life.
Natti passed on his love of acting to Susanna, whose husband, Willsky, fell in love with acting while attending Imperial College London. It was 1977, when great theater was both affordable and accessible in this city. When Willsky — now a recently retired tenured and endowed professor at MIT — returned to Massachusetts, he brought his love of acting back with him, and when the couple decided to move into Susanna’s “magical” childhood home at Blood Ledge Quarry in Lanesville, the Gloucester Stage theater has become a favorite venue.
To hear Willsky say it, Robert Natti was something more to him than just a stepfather. “When I think of him, I have a big smile,” Willsky said. “The number of people he influenced is enormous.”
It was a man, the couple said, who wore a “Have you kissed Robert today?” T-shirt. Who, when he hit his 70s, switched to a T-shirt that read “Aged to Perfection”. Who, instead of giving a speech at his retirement party in 1979, stood up at Gloucester House and delivered his own rendition of “I Did It My Way”.
“He had a great voice, a great baritone,” Susanna said. “He used to sing ‘Oh Susanna’ to me.”
With his wife, Mary Lee Kingman Natti – children’s book author, editor and creator of Folly Cove who passed away in 2020 – Robert Natti made their home a kind of theater where the door was always open for storytellers to share their stories.
Along with Susanna’s brother, Susanna Natti and her husband Alan Willsky have made something of a family compound from home on Blood Ledge Quarry. Here they carry on the spirit of Lee and Robert Natti’s open door policy. In the summer of 2020, they opened up their six acres to dancers and filmmakers who held that year’s virtual “quarry dances.”
“The Finns who came to Lanesville,” said Susanna, “took with them a great theatrical tradition. Dad was No. 9 out of 12 kids, so he had to make his presence known.
The same could be said for the Gloucester Stage Company. Although it has served some of the best theaters north of Boston for 40 years, it still has the potential “to be more,” said Chris Griffith, who hopes to tap into more of its untapped potential.
The Robert Natti Fund is limited to strategic projects and will allow Gloucester Stage to begin the planning phase of significant improvements to performers and audience experiences.
“Our work works best as a black box theater, but our location here on the waterfront on Smith Cove is something I’d like to make more accessible as part of the theater experience in Cape Ann,” said Griffith. “We like to harness Gloucester’s hardworking mentality in our work. How can we exploit its beauty more? »
Well, $500,000 will definitely get things started.
It is as generous, said Susanna Natti and Alan Willsky, as the man in whose name it was given, Robert Natti.
Joann MacKenzie can be reached at 978-675-2708, or [email protected]