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Craft: He put his heart

Mike and Gail Dobbins, circa the 2007 grand re-opening of the renovated Heartland Theatre Company in Normal, Illinois). (Pantagraph/B Mosher)

Our heart goes out to the family comprising Heartland Theatre Company this week.

It was just a year ago this summer that the theater troupe suffered a major loss with the passing of key member Michael Pullin, who was active both on the stage and behind the scenes in various capacities.

It doesn’t seem the least bit fair, as the unwelcome anniversary looms, that the curtain has fallen on yet another of its membership, also vital, and then some.

Mike Dobbins, the company’s managing artistic director the past 13 years, left us over the past week, taking a bit of Heartland’s heart with him, along with a chunk of its soul.

From our little bailiwick, Mike was the go-to guy when it came time to discuss whatever adventurous project the troupe at One Normal Plaza was currently up to.

And the troupe always seemed to be up to something, usually of more than passing interest — be it the latest tackling of a difficult play, or the founding of a new annual tradition, or the makeover (2007) of the One Normal space.

If it wasn’t Mike, then it was his co-star in life, Gail Dobbins, tireless handler of Heartland’s marketing chores.

Truth to tell, though, like so many dedicated theater folk, they both clearly were in it for a love and the passion than knew no job description.

Consequently, Mike’s artistic directing and Gail’s marketing chores were just the tips of the iceberg.

Our last interview with Team Dobbins took place just a month or so ago in advance of this year’s edition of Heartland’s now internationally-known “Ten-Minute Play Festival,” one of the most visible of the many legacies Mike and his accomplices have left us.

It’s the nature of our information-gathering profession that we are required to communicate with information providers on a fairly consistent basis.

Some of these clockwork encounters we anticipate with no great feeling either way, an attitude doubtless mirrored at the other end, too.

But when it came time to chat with Mike about whatever was up at Heartland, a good time was almost always assured … at least on our end.


Some people laugh and chuckle as a consequence of something they, or maybe you, say.

But Mike was one of the blessed whose voice seemed to have the laughs and chuckles built into what might otherwise emerge as everyday conversation.

As a result, his enthusiasm was always on the surface, ready to infect you, and turn you into a carrier, eager to let the world know that this year’s “Ten Minute Play Festival” theme was “The Front Porch” or that there was a brand new fest debuting called “One-Acts from the Heartland” or that he was directing “Clarence Darrow” on location in the McLean County Courthouse.

We’ve no doubt that the same enthusiasm and commitment was part of his equally notable day job — a whole ’nother story in itself that we don’t profess to properly appreciate — at Bloomington’s Project Oz, where he was a force for 21 years.

Though some of the heart has gone out of Heartland, the shows, we’re assured, will go on.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Gail remarked this sad week. “Gotta keep our legacy alive with Heartland.”

Further on up, more good news.

“Word has it that Michael Pullin and Mike Dobbins have started a little theater together on Heaven’s stage.”




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