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Michael Thurber, the new artistic director at the Granite Theatre on Monday, May 4, 2020. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — The coronavirus may have caused the opening of the Granite Theatre's 20th season to come to a screeching halt in March, but the theater's board of directors has some positive news to announce in May.

Michael Thurber, a well-known Rhode Island actor who won the heart of local audiences for his performance of Daddy Warbucks in the Granite's 2018 production of "Annie," was named the theater's new artistic director. Thurber will be just the second artistic director in recent years. David and Beth Jepson retired last year after close to 20 years at the helm — she as artistic director and he as assistant artistic director.

"I'm cut from the same cloth as David," said Thurber in a telephone interview earlier this week. "I've known David and Beth for more than a quarter of a century. They are just dear, dear friends."

Thurber, a Chepachet native and founder of Theatre Company of Rhode Island, was set to direct Ira Levin's thriller, "Death Trap" this season, the play that was to kick off the theater's 20th season.

"I want people to know that not only do I have David and Beth's blessing, but that I could not be happier," said Thurber. "I could not be happier."

David Jepson, who moved to Florida with his wife shortly after the end of the Granite's 2019 season, first collaborated with Thurber on a production of Ken Ludwig's "Moon Over Buffalo" at City Nights Theatre in Pawtucket 25 years ago.

Reached via email, Jepson noted that he and Thurber share many similarities.

"We each started our own theater ... within years of each other ... nearly 40 years ago," he said, "we've both seen lean years and banner years and we've both weathered many storms."

Plus, said Jepson, he and Thurber have done every job possible job there is to do in the theater.
"When we first collaborated," said Jepson, "I discovered an actor who had an identical work ethic as well as similar acting and directorial techniques. Equally important — I met a faithful friend."

Granite Board President John Cilino said he was optimistic about Thurber's leadership and pleased that he accepted the position, noting Thurber's "theatrical background and knowledge to be an effective leader."

"Our audiences know him already and enjoy him," said Cilino, who has directed Thurber in a number of Granite shows, and first saw him perform in the early 2000s in a production of "I Hate Hamlet" at the Granite.

"I was in awe watching him perform," said Cilino. "I think he's a nice segue from the Jepsons on into the future."

Playwright Lenny Schwartz, the founder of Woonsocket's Daydream Theatre, has worked with Thurber on a number of projects, and has been aware of Thurber "my whole life."

"He's amazing," said Schwartz. "I've never known such a hardworking, diligent performer."

Schwartz called Thurber "an intuitive performer and director," and one who is "out of the classics."

"He's dedicated and he knows what he wants," said Thurber. "He belongs on stage ... I think he'd live his life on stage if he could."

"I think he's the perfect person to guide the Granite," added Schwartz. "He is the truest human being I've ever known."

Thurber, who graduated from Ponagansett High School, then attended Oral Roberts University, where he graduated with a double major in theater and English and a minor in music. While a student at Oral Roberts University, he said, he got to know Roberts, a popular Christian televangelist, and served as his driver for a while.

"We had many wonderful conversations," said Thurber, who also got to meet such celebrities of the day as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Jerry Lewis.

Thurber has been a sales associate at Ephraim Doumato Jewelers in Greenville for 28 years and the church organist and choir director at Chepachet Union Church for the last five years.

He is also well-known as a piano player, a talent that began to show when he was just a 3-year-old, and has a musical one-man show he calls "Thurberace." It's a show, Thurber said, that not so much imitates Liberace, but showcases his own skills.

Theatre, said Thurber, is the driving force in his life.

"I love the theater and I want everyone to love it," Thurber writes on the Theatre Company of Rhode Island website. "I want the audience to see every genre of theater available. If you give the audience a performance they haven’t seen before or something they won’t see somewhere else ... that is the reward."

Thurber has performed with the Players at Barker, the Community Players of Pawtucket, City Nights Dinner Theater, the Yankee Theater Wing and the Academy Players of East Greenwich as well as the Granite.

When the coronavirus hit, Thurber said, the set for "Death Trap" had been built, the actors had learned their lines and tickets had been sold. It was to be the first show he directed at the Granite.

If they get the green light from the governor, he said, the show will go on.

Cilino said the board has been talking about "possible scenarios" and what "an abbreviated season" might look like.

"Everything is really up in the air," he said.

"Like everyone," he said, "we have to wait for the governor to provide guidance on how to safely transition into operations."

In the meantime, said Cilino, the theater has "cut our expenses to the bone" and is pondering ways to offer online content to its patrons.

"Maybe we'll get Michael to do some Shakespeare readings or play the piano or give tours of the theater," Cilino said. "There is nothing sadder than a dark theater."

"We would obviously welcome all donations to help us get through this difficult time," he added, "but we understand it's difficult for everybody."

"We miss everyone," Cilino added. "We just hope everyone stays healthy and stays connected."

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