The road to becoming a department
Although an official department of drama was not established until 1963, pageants, plays, drama clubs, and a general enthusiasm for theatre prevailed throughout the early years of East Carolina’s history. From its inception in 1907, the (then named) East Carolina Teachers Training School presented Shakespeare comedies, light operas and historical pageants. A new tradition, the senior play, began in 1911. Given the absence of one central department to organize the production, many departments and classes, including home economics (costumes), art (scenery), and music (musical accompaniment), contributed to make the senior play possible.
In addition to the senior play, clubs (such as the Poe, Lanier and Emerson societies) sponsored and created their own productions. Student theatre organizations were also formed, including “The Mimers” in 1933 and the “Chi Pi Players” in 1934.
In 1934, four official drama courses were added to the university curriculum. The courses were funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, which was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although the courses only remained part of the curriculum for two years, the program produced several one-act plays and increased appreciation for theatre on campus.
It wasn’t until 1952, however, that the creative outlets of the students could be produced in an actual theatre. The McGinnis Auditorium was constructed as part of a campus-wide renovation and named after Howard J. McGinnis, who had been the registrar for many years and who was the interim president. McGinnis Auditorium was meant to provide a multi-purpose auditorium and a theatre for the college. In 1954, President Messick (for whom the current theatre building is named) got a grant from the Danforth Foundation for the purpose of developing greater awareness of religion in human culture. One outcome of this grant was the creation of a drama program under the direction of Dr. Lucile Charles. She worked with the Inter-Religious Council and produced religious dramas. The school year production season also included modern dramas, comedies and classical works.
In 1962, Chancellor Leo Jenkins, who was very supportive of the arts, hired Edgar Loessin, a professional director and stage manager from New York, to create and chair the Department of Drama and Speech at East Carolina College. Edgar Loessin, the chair, and John Sneden, the scenic designer, were the only two faculty members in the new department that first year (1962-1963). During the fall of 1962, the department operated under the auspices of the English department, but in the spring of 1963, the Department of Drama and Speech was officially established. And in the following fall, several new faculty members, including Albert Pertalion, Helen Steer, Rosalind Roulston and Douglas Ray were hired. In 1997 the name of the department was changed to the Department of Theatre and Dance.
In 2003, the College of Fine Arts and Communication was established by the University and the Department became the School of Theatre and Dance.
The Department/School has had three unit heads in its history. Edgar Loessin established the Department of Drama and Speech in 1963 and continued to be chair until his retirement in 1990. John Shearin, a professional stage and film/TV actor and a professional stage director-producer, became the chair in 1990. In the spring of 2017 John passed away after a hard-fought battle with illness. Jayme Host, a former professor of dance at Lock Haven University, became the third unit head in the school’s history in the fall of 2017.
The fight for space
The physical location of the Department has changed little (with the exception of one year spent in a former funeral parlor). However, the struggle for ownership and for renovation of its facilities has been a long journey.
The first location for the department office, which housed Edgar Loessin and John Sneden, was in a vacant room that was up several flights of stairs in Wright Auditorium. Classes at that time were taught in any available space on campus, including Ragsdale, McGinnis and the Messick building. However, finding appropriate spaces to teach classes was sometimes a challenge. When Mavis Ray (a professional dancer-choreographer and protégé of Agnes DeMille) was hired to teach dance classes, no classroom with appropriate wooden floors or mirrors existed. Therefore, the stage floor of the McGinnis Auditorium was used for dance classes. Soon the departmental office was moved to the projection booth in the back of the McGinnis theatre. This tiny space housed Edgar Loessin, John Sneden and the department secretary, such that the edges of their desks touched and filled the entire space. The rest of the faculty offices were scattered around campus.
Space was a challenge at first, not just the lack of it, but the need for sole ownership. Next to McGinnis Auditorium was the Wahl Coates School (housed in what is currently the Messick building), a training school for elementary teachers. Consequently, Messick’s halls were filled with elementary-age school children. Their cafeteria was housed in the basement of McGinnis Auditorium (where the costume shop is currently located), often filling the theatre with interesting aromas. It was not uncommon for children to find their way into the McGinnis Auditorium, itself, and for them to display their artwork of turkeys or pumpkins on the theatre scrim.
Since McGinnis was built primarily with the function of providing an “auditorium” for the college, it provided a challenge for the production team (directors, designers, actors, crew,) to create and perform full-scale theatrical productions. Unlike an “auditorium,” most proscenium-arch theatres are constructed with wing space, fly space, and an orchestra pit to meet the varied production demands for innumerable plays and musicals. For instance, having adequate space offstage in the wings enables scenery to be close-by until it is immediately needed onstage, facilitating fast scene changes.
Additionally, most theatres typically have a fly space above the stage where backdrops can be stored and used. Paintings on canvas that can span the entire length of the stage, or backdrops, are hung on iron pipes, and with an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys, can be raised and stored above the stage or lowered onto the stage. For instance, if a scene needed to change from a country location to a city location, a backdrop containing a painting of the country could be lifted above the stage while the backdrop containing the city painting could be lowered onto the stage. This makes for fast scene changes and keeps the momentum of the play or musical moving forward. For musicals, where an orchestra is required, many theatres have an orchestra pit that is in front of and beneath the stage. This enables the conductor to see the action on stage and keeps the orchestra, itself, out of the main eye level of the audience, allowing the focus to be on the actors.
The McGinnis Auditorium, however, had none of the aforementioned features: it lacked fly space, storage space in the wings, and an orchestra pit. (Steps leading from the audience covered the entire length of the stage.) In spite of these obstacles, the first East Carolina Summer Theatre opened in 1964 with six full-scale musicals, which were rehearsed and performed in an eight-week period. And since there was also no available space for constructing and storing scenery, the Wahl Coates school cafeteria, just underneath the stage, was made into a temporary scene shop. The lack of space on stage necessitated creativity in the design of the scenery. For instance, the columns required in the first scene of My Fair Lady were built with hinges such that they could be folded up into the small space above the stage.
The McGinnis Auditorium was in need of renovation. The electrical lighting and sound equipment were prone to overheating, sometimes resulting in an electrical shut down or even small fires. During the first major dance concert in 1976, the electrical circuits overheated and threw a breaker, cutting out the music in the middle of the last dance piece. The first night resulted in the curtain coming down, but when it happened again the second night (in spite of the fans blowing on the equipment), the dancers refused to stop and finished the dance in silence. The lighting equipment was also prone to start small fires. During one dress rehearsal, a small fire began near the follow-spot operators in an area that was very difficult to access, preventing immediate help. Fortunately, the spot operators had previously removed some of their outer clothing in order to combat the intense heat, making it possible to use the clothing to beat out and extinguish the fire.
In 1978, money was allocated to renovate McGinnis Auditorium. Renovations included demolishing the entire stage house and rebuilding one with adequate fly and wing space, as well as raking the audience seating and replacing the wooden seats with new cushioned chairs. Renovations were completed in 1982, and the first production in the newly renovated McGinnis Theatre was a dance concert. The East Carolina Summer Theatre season opened in the new theatre with Show Boat. A celebration was held on April 3rd with a specially invited audience of alumni, important patrons and university officials to commemorate the opening of the “New McGinnis.”
For eight years the department used any available space around campus for offices and classrooms. But, in 1971, the Wahl Coates School that had been housed in the Messick Building moved, and Messick was given entirely to the Department. Finally, the department offices, classrooms, rehearsal and performance spaces were located in one central area. The gymnasium of the former school was converted into the Studio Theatre, and dance studios were built by installing dance floors in some of the classrooms. However, the Messick Building, itself, was also in badly need of renovation. When the department first moved in, there was no air conditioning, the green painted walls were peeling, and ceiling tiles often fell.
In 1980, the Messick Building was slated to undergo major renovations, meaning that the department would have to completely vacate the building for a year and a half. The only building that was within walking distance and that was big enough to accommodate the expanding department was a vacated funeral home (located where The Boundary apartments in Uptown Greenville stand today). This one building then housed all classes, offices, rehearsal spaces, theatrical productions, and construction and storage space for costumes and props. Working in a former funeral home required its own set of adjustments. One faculty member had his office in the former embalming room and used one of the stainless steel tables for his desk. The coffin lift was helpful for storing scenery and props. Scenery was built in the four-bay hearse garage. Each day tools, equipment, and supplies were taken into the garage for constructing the scenery and then returned into the building for safe storage at the end of the day. Productions that year took place in the former chapel of the funeral home. A well-lit stainless glass window with a religious motif hovered in plain sight while productions such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago took place below.
A year and a half later, Messick renovations were complete. Part of the work included demolishing the one-story wooden structure that was previously used to store scenery and replacing it with a new, much larger brick building for constructing, storing, and painting scenery. The Department then moved back into the newly renovated Messick Building, where most classes, offices, rehearsals and workshop productions occur today.
What’s in a name?
Edgar Loessin founded the Department, served as its chair for 27 years, created many new programs and degrees, established the East Carolina Summer Theatre and the East Carolina Playhouse, and contributed in many other ways to create a department that became a leading force in university theatre. In tribute to Edgar’s achievements as director, producer, and department chair, and in recognition of his contributions to the cultural life of the university and the region, the department’s production series were renamed in his honor: The ECU/Loessin Playhouse and Summer Theatre.
On September 27, 2001, a celebration was held in Loessin’s honor, and the two series were officially renamed in a ceremony prior to the opening night of South Pacific. Many former colleagues and alumni were present and spoke about the earlier days of the Department.
The department has gone through many name changes during its forty-plus years of existence. The Department of Drama and Speech became the Department of Theatre Arts in the mid-1980s. In 1997, the name was again changed to the Department of Theatre and Dance. And more recently, the department has not only changed its name, but its college.
In the spring of 2003, Provost William Swart united all arts units under one umbrella, forming a new college. The four units involved (Art and Design, Communication, Music and Theatre and Dance) all met to discuss the pros and cons of creating this new college. After much debate, the college was eventually approved through a formal vote. The issue then arose of what to name the new college. After much debate, the Provost called a meeting where he invited faculty from all four units. All potential names were listed on a chalkboard, and a vote was taken by a show of hands. With 25 votes, the “College of Fine Arts and Communication” became the official title of the newly formed unit.
In the summer of 2003, the Department of Theatre and Dance became the School of Theatre and Dance, and John Shearin’s title changed from Chair to Director of the new school. Beginning fall of 2003, the newly named School left its old home in the College of Arts and Sciences. However, the creation of new names and newly formed colleges can bring to mind old words from the Bard: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
Bratton, Mary Jo Jackson. East Carolina University: The Formative Years, 1907-1982.
East Carolina University Alumni Association: Greenville, North Carolina, 1986.
The Nomination of Edgar R. Loessin for the Oliver Max Gardner Award East Carolina University: Greenville, North Carolina, 1986.