Jane Staab’s Life In Theater Has Affected Generations

by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll

Love of theater has defined Jane Staab’s work and life, and for most of the past six decades-plus, it’s been about the children.

Her original goal was professional acting, and she once shared stages with Frank Langella and Art Carney. But Staab spent more than 30 years on staff — acting, directing, teaching, casting, business managing and more — at Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston, which she co-founded. She’s also been a force on stage and behind the scenes before, during and after that time at Cape Cod Theatre Company/Harwich Junior Theatre.

Her work and advocacy at both theaters, “helping young performers grow and thrive,” she says in her Wheelock bio, has been “the most rewarding of all possible careers.”

“It makes you swell with pride to know how they’ve grown and how they feel like Wheelock or Harwich Junior Theatre did something for them and was the reason they are who they are,” Staab said in a recent interview, shortly after her 80th birthday, at the Harwich home where she retired a decade ago. “You feel gratitude to see someone respond and gain confidence.”

While she has helped train young actors who went on to Broadway and other professional careers, “it isn’t even necessarily creating a more talented person,” she says. “It’s the growth of a more full human being.”

Staab wishes more people young and old would experience learning about history and other people through theatrical storytelling. “You learn so much about life, work, and teamwork, but mostly you learn about human nature,” she says. “You're much less likely to judge people and more likely to have empathy.”

Staab’s love of theater started early: She had the lead part in her kindergarten play in New Jersey. Her mother, a teacher, was involved in community theater and often took Staab to see 1950s Broadway musicals like “Peter Pan,” starring Mary Martin, and “West Side Story.” Her family vacationed on the Cape, near John Joseph Pond, and Staab was 10 when she was enthralled by her first show (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”) and the jester greeter at a then-fledgling Harwich Junior Theatre.

At 16, Staab became an apprentice there. Her first jobs were taking care of props for another “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” and playing Rapunzel. When she worked at summer-theater programs elsewhere, and studied at Northwestern University, she’d check in with Betty Bobp, HJT founder and drama teacher at Wheelock College, about any Cape roles available during her breaks. Bobp’s answer: “Jane, there’s always a part for you.”

And over the decades, there has been — directing, acting, teaching or volunteering.

In 1970, she and HJT friends Susan Kosoff and Anthony Hancock co-founded Harwich Winter Theatre, presenting the first off-season shows at the West Harwich building. She held multiple jobs there — while cleaning houses and working at the library to make ends meet — before the endeavor closed and she went back to professional acting. In 1981, she moved to Boston to co-found (with Kosoff, Hancock, and Andrea Genser) and do “a bit of everything” for Wheelock Family Theatre, which became connected to Equity and produced multiple annual shows.

A Wheelock blog from shortly before Staab's retirement describes her back office filled with tea-brewing accouterments and an overflowing bookshelf, and Staab herself as “commanding and opinionated; clear and direct; and, above all, kind and generous of spirit.”

Staab retired to a Harwich house she’d bought years before because her friends, including Kosoff, were here, and Cape Cod always felt like home. Now, full circle, volunteer roles at CCTC/HJT that help to keep her busy have included acting treasurer on the board of directors. In December, she was back on stage here in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Just weeks before, she’d performed at Wheelock again, too, playing Grandma in “The Addams Family” musical, and remains on that theater’s board of advisors.

While Staab acknowledges line memorization has become tougher in recent years, she’s rarely had stage fright. But preparation for teaching — at both theaters and Wheelock College — has always made her anxious, enough to avoid that job when she could. Directing shows, though, never worried her. “Don’t ask me what the difference is!” she says with a laugh.

Staab has adapted various classic stories for the stage, and composed scores for musical versions, including “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess.” Staab’s favorite acting roles in well over 100 productions have included Sister Aloysius in “Doubt,” Marilla in “Anne of Green Gables,” and gender-bending performances of “Willy Wonka,” and thief Fagin in the musical “Oliver!”

Staab is proud of her part in pushing for multigenerational and diverse casting at Wheelock, which has won multiple state and national awards, including for accessibility and inclusion. She recalls early on, for example, casting Black actors to play Superman and Cinderella, cutting sexist lines and scenes in “The Music Man,” and working with representatives of the Wampanoag tribe to change lines and Native American characters in “Peter Pan.” When Wampanoag families were happy with their version of the problematic show, she says, “you know you’ve accomplished something really important.”

Watching or participating in theater, Staab believes, can make a difference for community understanding and world outlooks, as well as shaping people young and old.

“I try my best to promote the value of theater in people's lives,” she says. “If there were more theater, there would be fewer shootings, fewer angry people, and fewer disputes for ridiculous reasons.”