FSU/Asolo Conservatory director retiring after 17 years

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Greg Leaming, who has been director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory since 2004, will retire at the end of the 2021-22 academic year.

After 17 years leading the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory graduate acting program in Sarasota and serving as associate artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, Greg Leaming said his decision to retire at the end of the new school year comes at a perfect time.

He believes the program is stronger than it has been in years, even after the last 18 months rocked the conservatory from the pandemic to tackling issues of racism.

“We came out of the health crisis alive and actually graduated a class last year and have two classes moving up that we feel good about,” he said.

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Months into the pandemic in 2020, a call to action letter issued by Black students and endorsed by more than 200 alumni and other theater artists, challenged the school to adopt anti-racist measures and take steps to diversify.  Coming in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the challenge led to changes that Leaming believes have strengthened the program.

In June, The Hollywood Reporter included the conservatory on its list of the top 25 acting programs in the world, a list topped by the Juilliard School and the Yale School of Drama. The FSU/Asolo Conservatory ranked No. 20.

“It seems like a good time to leave because the place is in good shape,” Leaming said.

At the 2013 FSU/Asolo Conservatory graduation ceremony, graduate Francisco Rodriguez gave conservatory director Greg Leaming a bear hug.

After some challenging years between the Sarasota program and the main campus in Tallahassee, including talk about moving the conservatory out of Sarasota, Leaming said “the relationship with Tallahassee has improved exponentially. Tallahassee has embraced the conservatory in the past three years in a way that had never happened, the interest in working with the conservatory and moving it forward has been huge.”

Brad Brock, director of the FSU School of Theatre who has worked closely with the conservatory since the students’ call to action last year, said Leaming’s “impact can be seen in the successes of our students, the achievements of our alumni, the strong relationship with the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and the numerous awards and national rankings that the program has received.”

And James Frazier, dean of the college of fine arts, said under Leaming’s leadership, “the program has consistently been recognized as one of the highest caliber among its peers both nationally and internationally.”

Like so many others, Leaming, 66, said he had time to reflect on his life during the pandemic and what might come next.

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Time for reflection

Leaming is not sure of his plans other than a move to Pennsylvania.

“I need to retire from everything, the theater, teaching, directing,” he said. “I need to step back from it all and just breathe a little bit and then figure it out.”

He admits the decision is “scary as hell” because “I’ve always had a job to go to, so that will be a little weird.”

In the three-year conservatory program, second-year students present a season of four shows, and in their third year, they become members of the Asolo Rep acting company.

FSU/Asolo Conservatory director Greg Leaming announcing the 2018-19 lineup for second-year conservatory students.

Last year was the first that the students weren’t able to perform on stage. Students performed on video in “Julius Caesar,” and Anna Deveare Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which was a response to the student call for greater diversity in programming and creative personnel.

The call to action “essentially alerted us to look for and consider the racial bias that might be at the heart of what we’re doing. It made us think more carefully that every student is seen or sees him or herself here,” he said.

Faculty members examined the curriculum, and because recruiting for the new first-year class was done exclusively online, Leaming was able to see a broader range of potential students who might not have been able to afford to travel to audition cities.

“Anyone with a phone and a camera could audition and it opened up people in a way that I hadn’t seen before and led to a more diverse student body,” he said. “And the more we diversify the student body, the more we have to diversify the season. We’re also looking to bring in a more diverse core of guest artists.”

Limited directing opportunities

Leaming assumes he won’t be directing much in the future. 

“I don’t think there’s a lot of directing opportunities for me out there for the next 10 years because of this examination of people in positions of power and theaters trying to diversify those positions,” he said.

He will most miss teaching a script text analysis class. “Maybe 75 percent of the students like it and 25 percent hate it,” he said. “I would love to keep doing that if I could find a program where I could do it as an adjunct or something. A little bit of teaching would be great and I’d like to find a way to continue directing.”

The university said it will conduct a national search to find Leaming’s successor over the course of the new school year.

Leaming directed numerous productions for both the conservatory and Asolo Rep. Among his favorites were “Cloud Nine,” “The Misanthrope,” “Men of Tortuga” and “Gloria.”

“They were all great experiences,” he said. “And I have always enjoyed working with the second year students.”

During his tenure, Leaming launched the summer Dog Days Theatre Company, which operated for just a few years before the pandemic, providing opportunities for recent graduates. He also launched Asolo Rep’s Unplugged series to test out new plays in a casual setting.

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