Theater VCU is auditioning for a spot on the national stage. 

Primed for Prominence

You can tell that David Leong has thought long and hard about the future. When you ask the chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's department of theatre what his plans are for the next couple of years, he responds without even a millisecond pause and with a laserlike intensity you would expect of a Certified Fight Master: "My goal is [for Theatre VCU] to become a nationally ranked theater program in as short a time as possible."

After five years at the helm, Leong now finds himself in a unique position to pursue this goal. This past year, several important factors came together — the VCU theater budget was increased; long-term members of the staff retired, clearing the way for new faculty appointments; and the area's only Actor's Equity company, TheatreVirginia (TVA), hired a new artistic director, Benny Sato Ambush, an old friend of Leong's.

Ambush and Leong will look for opportunities to work together wherever possible. They will develop joint productions, share facilities, pursue cooperative funding possibilities, and, where appropriate, even share staff. "There's a lot to explore," says Ambush, who is still settling into his new job, but who clearly sees Theatre VCU as a key component of TVA's future. "We have to see what kinds of programs we can create jointly that are mutually beneficial."

Add this expanded relationship with TVA to the evolutionary changes Leong has fostered during his tenure, and the VCU theater department is, in Leong's words, "primed to make a huge leap forward."

While the Richmond theater scene is stuffed with graduates from Theatre VCU, Leong's sights are set further afield. He wants his program to be an incubator for national talent. "In years past, if we thought [an applicant] had potential, we let them in," he explains. "Now it's more than that. We're only going to admit people who have a clear professional goal, who say, 'I want to be an actor in New York' or 'I want to be a stage manager for a national tour' and are willing to work to get there."

The quest to reach national standing will be a tough one for Theatre VCU: in the 1997 US News and World Report listings, it did not even make the top 50 drama programs, while two other state schools did — University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. But if there is anyone who can do it, Leong can. A nationally recognized fight choreographer who has worked on major films and Broadway shows, Leong has already raised Theatre VCU's profile significantly. In 1999, when he workshopped battle scenes for the big-budget English production "Napoleon" using his VCU students, he brought international attention to Richmond.

The dean of the VCU school of the arts, Richard Toscan, explains, "Under David's direction, the theater program has become more outwardly focused, and his professional activity has brought it a great deal of prestige and exposure." Mentioning the "Napoleon" workshop specifically, Toscan says, "Several students can now put on their resume that they worked with [the internationally acclaimed director of "Napoleon"] Francesca Zambello. That gets peoples' attention."

Leong emphasizes that the enhanced relationship with TVA is key to raising his program's profile. Says Leong, "Theatre VCU will now join a list of maybe 12 to 15 programs in the country that are hooked into a major regional theater." These other programs include the top-ranked school in the country, the Yale School of Drama, which collaborates with the Yale Repertory Theater.

Beyond his partnership with TVA, Leong is using clever financial management to revamp his department. This past year, two significant members of the faculty retired. Leong turned these vacancies into opportunities, hiring mostly collateral (i.e., non-tenure track) faculty to maximize the dollar value of his budget. So he has been able to hire 8 new faculty members for the coming school year, from just four openings.

Leong says, "A prominent theater professional who is working in New York free-lancing will say, 'I'll come down to Richmond for a couple of years but I don't want to make a lifelong commitment.'" His strategy will result in some high-profile additions to Theatre VCU faculty. Though many of the appointments haven't been finalized, Leong mentions Kelly Morgan specifically as a new hire, a master directing professor who is currently the artistic director of Americultural Arts Festival in Massachusetts.

Both Toscan and Leong are reluctant to give specific details of how much Theatre VCU's budget has been increased, but Toscan says, "The music department has traditionally had the largest budget [in the school of the arts], and theater has had the smallest." The increase this year "begins to move theater into the midrange," he says.

Leong will also devote resources to improving the technical aspects of Theatre VCU's main stage productions, which are already well-regarded. Next year's season is the program's most challenging in its history. "It's a conscious choice," says Leong. "We're doing a season that sounds like a progressive regional theater rather than a typical college program."

Some sources have suggested that VCU bolstered its theater program to keep Leong from leaving. "I've had offers from a lot of other schools, very good schools," he acknowledges. "But I chose to stay here because I felt I had the greatest potential to reach my goals." Leong's intensity subsides for a moment as he breaks into a wide smile, "I've got the best job in the world right now."


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