The performing arts have been a staple at the School of the Arts since its inception. According to H.H. Hibbs, the first director of Richmond Professional Institute, the earliest recorded music teacher was Helen Fill Rhodes, who joined in 1930. Rhodes was a professor of voice, and was known as “a sort of welcoming committee” by RPI students. At the beginning of each semester, she would greet students by the front door and inquire with each one about music lessons.
Faculty member L. Wayne Batty’s passion for opera coalesced in the founding of the school’s opera program in 1950. RPI’s first opera was staged in 1952, launching Virginia’s longest running tradition of annual full-scale productions. The city soon followed suit, becoming such a hub for operatic performance that the Metropolitan Opera would regularly tour south to Richmond. A colleague of Batty’s once remarked that “Wayne pretty much brought opera to Richmond on a regular basis.”
In more recent years, faculty members have made great strides in pioneering other new programs and avenues of study, such as the renowned Jazz Studies program, which was founded by Doug Richards in 1980.
In the early years of RPI’s School of Art, many faculty members took up grassroots campaigns to enroll students in their programs. In the theatre program, that meant Raymond Hodges, the first chair of theatre, was the sole faculty member in a program with only one student. The Department of Theatre was ostensibly founded in 1940 when the Anton Chekhov comedy A Marriage Proposal, directed by Hodges, was one of the first stage productions held at RPI.
For many years, theatre staged its productions at the Shafer Street Playhouse, a converted gymnasium. Hodges was outspoken in his belief that the theatre department needed an appropriate venue in order to compete with similar schools across the nation. In 1985, a dedicated theater inside the newly built W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts was named in his honor.
It was around that time that the Department of Dance + Choreography also came into being. Before the program began offering BFA degrees in 1981, dance was housed under the physical education department at VCU. Faculty member Frances Wessells was instrumental in moving dance to the arts school, and the growth of the department over the 1980s was bolstered by Dean Murry DePillars’ support.
Today, the departments of music, theatre and dance comprise a vibrant community of performers, educators and scholars who are shaping the future of the performing arts. The theatre department stages four full-scale productions every year, while music hosts more than 250 concerts and recitals. Next year, music and theatre will stage their first collaborative production: a retrospective of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work. Meanwhile, the pre-professional nature of the dance program provides students with numerous opportunities for individual artistic growth in a diverse setting that cultivates innovation and collaboration.
2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCU School of the Arts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.