Stage Directions

At Norfolk State University, theater professor Anthony Stockard, MFA’08, makes drama come alive in a newly opened multimillion-dollar theater complex.

Anthony Stockard, MFA’08
Courtesy Norfolk State University
Anthony Stockard, MFA’08

Asked why undergraduates should study theater, Anthony Stockard, MFA’08, lets out a rich roar that’s part laugh, part fanfare: “Oh!”

With the passion of an evangelist, the 37-year-old theater professor and theater company director at Norfolk State University launches into his answer. “People don’t understand the breadth and possibility inside a theater degree,” he says, then ticks off the skills students learn. Collaboration. Speech communication. Creativity. The ability to work independently, to innovate.

Since arriving four years ago at NSU, a historically black public university in Norfolk, Virginia, Stockard is remaking theater education there, sending out a beacon of hope to struggling theater programs at universities around the U.S.

So far, he’s forged an artistic partnership between his NSU Theatre Company and the professional Virginia Stage Company (their co-productions have included “The Wiz” and “The Parchman Hour”). Taken his students to national theater competitions. Won two awards at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Hired three full-time faculty to teach 60 drama students (who are currently English majors with a concentration in theater performance), up from the seven drama students enrolled when he started working at NSU. Cheered as a program leading to a full-fledged BA in drama and theater was recently approved by the school’s board of visitors.

Last but certainly not least, in September Stockard presided over the opening of a $60 million theater complex — which also includes classrooms, offices and study spaces — on the NSU campus. The inaugural play produced in its main-stage theater was “Choir Boy,” penned by a co-writer of the Academy Award winner “Moonlight.” In February, the curtains rose on a production of August Wilson’s “Fences.” “The Color Purple” begins a run in April.

The road to these successes hasn’t been red-carpet smooth. When Stockard was 12, his father died after suffering a stroke, and his mother, emotionally unable to care for her three children, abandoned them to relatives and, later, to foster homes (she died of cancer while Stockard was at Brandeis).

Stockard turned the upheaval into motivation. “It has always been an agenda of mine to help others move closer to their dreams,” the Ohio native says.

He studied theater at Alabama State University, where he met Janet Morrison, a Brandeis theater-arts faculty member, when she visited to recruit for the university’s MFA program in acting. She invited him to audition for her that afternoon and made him an offer that evening.

He accepted, aware of the success other Alabama State theater students had had in the Brandeis graduate program. “Truth even unto its innermost parts” quickly became his personal mantra. “I was so moved by that phrase when I first read it,” he says. “It was a philosophy I lived by but couldn’t find words to frame it in.”

While still at Brandeis, Stockard made his New York debut as an actor in an off-Broadway production of a new play called “Old Comedy.” After earning his MFA, he taught for several years at Alabama State before moving north for the NSU job.

The model set by Morrison at Brandeis continues to inspire him. “Janet always expected a thousand percent and reciprocated that effort fully with wisdom, kindness, patience, truth and endless encouragement,” he says. “Whenever I am tempted to move a process along quicker by spoon-feeding students their acting choices, I think of Janet and her talks about valuing all the work put into a process.”

As a result, his NSU students hold themselves “fully accountable for operating under professional expectations of responsibility and quality,” Stockard says. “They love it.”

Stockard’s students say he pushes them into a more disciplined space. “I used to think theater was about performing for a handclap,” says Tajleed Hardy, a sophomore from New Orleans. “Now I think it is about understanding one’s self, and opening up to the people around you and the community you perform for.

“I’d never really been frustrated before,” Hardy continues. “Most things come quite easily to me. But theater makes me go back and revisit things about it and myself, too. There are times where Professor Stockard asks us to run when we can barely crawl, but that is because he has high hopes for us and knows that if we put the work in we can be successful.”

“Theater has its origins in building communities,” Stockard says, “almost like church. It never loses that power. That community experience can even shift the psyche of a group of people watching the production.

“Everyone tells our students all the time that we haven’t had theater here like this in 30 years. And who doesn’t like to be part of a revival!”

Ingrid Schorr is director of the Office of the Arts at Brandeis.