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Home » News » FSU/Asolo Conservatory Director Greg Leaming Helps Guide the Future of the American Theater

FSU/Asolo Conservatory Director Greg Leaming Helps Guide the Future of the American Theater

Published November 3, 2014
Article courtesy of the Herald Tribune
Written by Jay Handelman

Greg Leaming is the director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory and is staging the school’s season-opening production of David Mamet’s “The Water Engine.” Staff Photo/Thomas Bende

In the 10 years since he took over as director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, Greg Leaming says, his family has noticed a certain calmness about him.

“Absolutely no one in this building will believe this, they’ll guffaw when they read this, but I’m actually far calmer than I used to be. My family has even started commenting on it,” said Leaming, who joined the conservatory in 2004.

He’s not sure how much calmer he’s become, but Leaming acknowledges that he has a better handle on juggling his varied responsibilities of directing, teaching, recruiting students, working with Florida State University administrators, and, perhaps most importantly, raising money to support the graduate acting program in Sarasota.

His focus at the moment, however, is directing the opening of the new conservatory season for the second-year students with a production of David Mamet’s “The Water Engine,” which begins Tuesday.

It’s a rarely seen, early Mamet play that began as a radio play on NPR. He later turned it into a 1977 stage play that maintains some of the radio show elements, with actors reading scripts at a table and creating sound effects. But certain scenes break out and are performed as if they’re actually happening.

“The magic of storytelling on the radio suddenly becomes real,” Leaming said. The show, set in 1934 during the Chicago World’s Fair, is about a man named Lang (played by Josh James) who invents an engine that runs on water, and the conflicts he faces from business interests. It is staged on a set that looks like a radio sound stage.

The play requires the actors to play multiple roles with quick changes.

“It has characters who come out of nowhere and disappear. It forces the actor to make a strong, three-dimensional commitment in a short period of time,” Leaming said.

Mamet has created characters who may have deep thoughts, but not the complex vocabulary to express them. “They don’t have the language to put their situations in words,” he said. “There’s an enormous depth to every scene that the actors have to come to terms with.”

That’s what makes it a valuable acting exercise for the eight second-year students, while the story itself, Leaming said, should get audiences engaged.

The production is part of the students’ three years of graduate training that include a first year of classes and workshops and part-time jobs in and around Asolo Repertory Theatre. In their second year, they continue classes and are featured in their own four-show season. In the third year, the students will tour the state in a production geared for school students, and then become members of the Asolo Rep’s acting company.

That tie to a professional theater is what first appealed to the 59-year-old Leaming, who came from serving as an artistic director or producing director of several theaters prior to joining the conservatory, which is frequently ranked among the top 10 graduate acting programs.

Since the arrival of Michael Donald Edwards in 2005 as producing artistic director, Leaming said it has become a little easier to recruit new students.

“Michael has really raised the profile of the theater so in auditions for students we’re not competing in the same way that we once did. The growth of Asolo Rep has allowed for the growth and deepening of the national profile of the conservatory. They’ve expanded together.”

Having the students as part of the acting company, allows Edwards to produce shows that he might not be able to afford if he had to pay for all the actors featured in some of the large-cast shows he schedules.

Greg Leaming

Greg Leaming announces the new season for the FSU/Asolo Conservatory on Tuesday. (March 18, 2014) (Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner)

Leaming says it was a “no-brainer” decision for him to accept the job when it was offered in the fall of 2004. He had served as interim director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and felt “it would be good to get off the merry-go-round of regional theater for a while.” He was teaching in Dallas when he was contacted by a search firm looking for someone to succeed Gil Lazier as conservatory director.

“This was a perfect job for me. It allowed me to keep one foot in regional theater and one foot in academia,” he said.

Leaming joined the conservatory at a time of some upheaval for the program. There were brief suggestions the university would close the program or move it to Tallahassee.

“That lasted about three hours before they changed their minds,” Leaming said. Today, after numerous changes in administrations and deans, relations are strong and supportive for the program, he said.

Leaming also serves as associate artistic director of Asolo Rep, for which he directs at least one show each year and is involved in the annual Unplugged series of new play readings.

Each winter, he travels to several cities to recruit the next fall class, keeping in mind the eventual needs of Asolo Rep.

“I think I audition them as the years have developed more with an eye toward their general usefulness in a theatrical season, instead of just seeking out raw talent,” he said.

In years past, there would be six women and six men in each class, but that has shifted because of the reality that “there aren’t that many women’s roles written in the canon and we can’t make use of that many women in the Asolo Rep season.”

“We’ve been able to think big because of the conservatory,” Edwards said. “We’ve been able to do plays that we couldn’t do otherwise.”

He credits Leaming with keeping him up in touch with contemporary playwrights and new works, and cites Leaming and the conservatory with rebuilding the New Stages touring program around the third-year students each fall.

His goal by the time the students graduate is that they are prepared to face a competitive job market, which can take a toll on many.

The most successful students see in their third year that part of the training is developing the social, professional skills, the technique of working in a professional rehearsal room, the technique of developing relationships with professional actors and identifying in that third year what they’re going to need when they go out into the profession.”

The students become familiar to audiences in their second year, in what Leaming calls their “star” year, but many also have to adjust in their third year when they have less prominent roles in the Asolo Rep season.

In the third year, they have to figure out how to shine in more limited capacities. It’s their job to create stunning and striking small moments in the larger ensemble. The students who get frustrated and can’t work with that kind of precision have more trouble when they get out of here.

He leads a small faculty of four other professors, who teach classes in various techniques of acting, movement and voice techniques. Leaming himself teaches a scene study class in which the students learn how to get what they need out of the scripts they’re assigned.

And he’s learned to adjust his priorities, which may explain a calmer demeanor.

“You can’t live in a constant state of crisis,” said Edwards, who credits managing director Linda DiGabriele with helping him realize that “everything can’t be the top priority. That’s true with Greg, too.”