Alum newsletter spotlight: David Leong (Department Chair 1996-2016)

collage of photos

David Leong, Theatre Department Chair, 1996-2016

When David arrived as Department Chair in 1996, then President Eugene Trani asked him to develop a professional actor program in connection with TheatreVirginia. David recounts, “This became a futile effort because we didn’t have enough faculty or financial resources to offer assistantships to graduate students, so we looked into what we were good at and realized that so many Theatre VCU graduate students had gone on to teach at the college level. We thought, ‘Why don’t we make better what we already do well. This is  a no-brainer. Let’s start our own program.’”

David Leong coaching MFA Pedagogy students Alexis Black on left (now teaching at Michigan State University) and Brianna Larson (now teaching at Arkansas State University)

When Dr. James Parker retired, the position was filled as Head of Pedagogy, and Dr. Noreen Barnes-McLain was brought in from Southern Illinois. They started the degree with a foundational 12 credits and focused on several areas.

  • Noreen headed up the program aimed at academic scholarship
  • Janet Rodgers was in charge of voice and speech
  • David headed up movement.

During his tenure from 1996 to 2016, the Department’s strongest areas were costume and scene design at the undergrad level and the pedagogy program at the graduate level.  “I heard that in 2012 when I attended the National Association of Schools of Theatre’s annual conference.”

Three photos above – Green screen video shoot for “The Miracle,” filmed for an ambitious battle scene David choreographed (Miracle Theater, 2006). Featuring Theatre VCU Pedagogy students Tiza Garland (now teaching at University of Florida) and Jamie Cheatham (now teaching at Marquette University)

David continues, “When I arrived, the undergraduate program in Theatre Education was struggling and was confusing some people, so I said ‘Let’s clarify. Theatre Ed was to train teachers at the secondary level, while Pedagogy focuses on higher education, whether in administration, teaching or heading up programs for LORT theatres.’” The program allowed the graduate students to teach and be mentored while learning to be professors and leaders.  This made it different from most other graduate MFA programs in the country.

“In 2001, Aaron Anderson was hired to support Janet Rodgers, as well as teach undergraduate movement, but we found out that he was really better at teaching movement than voice, and he was also an exceptional scholar, so then we switched him over to teach history, literature and criticism and movement.”

In 2004, Patti D’Beck came in as a guest artist and she eventually joined the faculty to specialize in movement and musical theatre.

In 2016, David and Noreen identified a total of 123 grads who were teaching at the college level from the origin of Theatre VCU until present day – and that included more than 70 from the official start of the MFA program in Theatre pedagogy in the year 2000.

Theatre VCU MFA Pedagogy Alumni doing a workshop of Mother Courage featuring Kathleen Turner at Arena Stage during the summer of 2013. At the time, all 14 students were teaching at colleges and universities in the U.S. Thirteen of the fourteen are still teaching.

(top row from left) Jamie Cheatham (Marquette), Darrel Rushton (Frostburg State U), Penny Any Maas (Texas Christian U), Valerie Accetta (Univ. of Alabama Birmingham), Maggie Marlyn Hess (Illinois State Univ), Kelly Shoger (University of Alabama)
(Middle row from left) Robb Hunter (George Washington U), David Leong, Kathleen Turner, Ali Angelone (Dean College)
(Front row from left) Drew Richardson (Muhlenberg College), Kevin Inouye (Case Western Reserve U), Jonathan Becker (, Marie Percy (Univ of Conn.) and Cara Rawlings (Va Tech U).

Switching gears to what David’s been up to since retiring in 2019.

In 2008, David and Aaron started pilot projects to teach empathy to physicians. Since then, they expanded that to teach communication skills in the business school. Ultimately, this resulted in a book: Real World Public Speaking: What to Say and the and Real World Public Speaking: How to Say It.

green book cover
blue book cover

Together, they created The Critical Communications Group consulting with Fortune 500 companies to help them improve their presentation skills. Clients include NASA, UNOS, Altria, The Federal Reserve, Hamilton Beach and Oxfam. David and Aaron continue to refine the books and their website

“For the first year after I retired, I was working all over the country doing fight choreography until COVID hit.” He and Patti have five vacations this year, so that should keep them busy enjoying life.

Patti D’Beck and David Leong at 200’ Arethusa Falls in North Conway, NH

Compiled by Liz Hopper, professor emeritus, and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the May 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter.