When his high school peers were stealing their parents’ cars to go to parties, Greg Leaming was stealing his parents’ car to venture into Manhattan, N.Y., to get the $5 student-rush tickets to Off-Broadway plays.
“We’d steal the car, park it at a parking lot in Queens, take the subway in and run in to see whatever was playing,” he said. “We’d see anything.”
These days he drives his own car to the theater. He’s the director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, one of the nation’s leading professional graduate-level acting programs, and the associate artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Leaming grew up in a blue-collar family with mother Doris, and policeman father Laurence.
“Whenever they did have money, Broadway was their passion,” he says.
One such instance was when he was 7 or 8 years old, and he remembers seeing Margaret Hamilton in a production of “Oklahoma!” at Lincoln Center. Leaming tells this story at the speed one might expect from a Long Islander from Levittown.
In high school, Leaming and his fellow students went on field trips to Lincoln Center to see plays such as “Antigone” and “The Good Person of Szechwan.” Leaming thinks many people go into theater because they love to make believe; they see a slightly different vision of the world.
“I think everybody in theater feels a little bit like an outsider looking in,” he says. “And you want to communicate a vision of what you see.”
Leaming wanted to explore the way he saw the world, so he attempted acting in New York City, but his short career run ended — he claims he was too tall.
“I think everybody gets involved in the theater starting out as an actor, and gradually people find their other skills,” he says.
For Leaming, that other skill was teaching. After studying theater at Albany State University and at the graduate level at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he opted to teach high school theater, but he found he preferred teaching at a graduate level, for which he’s not responsible for teenagers’ psychological development.
When the FSU/Asolo Conservatory was conducting a search for a director of the program, it wanted someone with both a foot in the arts and an education in theater. It was perfect for him, because after teaching, he spent 25 years working at regional theaters, such as the Long Wharf Theatre and the Portland Stage Company, and he always wanted to get back in the classroom. So, in 2004, he took the job that combines both.
Leaming does a little bit of everything. He works with faculty to put together a curriculum, teaches a text-analysis class, recruits a new class yearly, hires faculty, coordinates the workshop leaders, does the fundraising for the program, selects the four-play season each year and also helps develop the season at Asolo Repertory Theatre. If you ask him if he has a social life, he’ll smile and say, “This is it,” and he’s OK with that.
His work varies from day to day. He could be doing anything from writing grants to rehearsing with the cast for the upcoming March 29 production of Asolo Rep’s “The Game’s Afoot,” which he’s directing.
It’s a murder-mystery comedic farce about theater people by Ken Ludwig, famous for the successful “Lend Me a Tenor.” The play centers on the late American actor, William Gillette, who made Sherlock Holmes a popular figure. Leaming says the play is “really delicious and well-produced theater.” Two of the five cast members are his third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory students. Two weeks later, April 9, the second-year students’ production of “Candida” opens.
Leaming’s particularly thrilled this week, because as of Wednesday, March 13, he knows which 12 students will be joining the graduate acting program next season. This year, there were more than 1,200 applications — the 12 lucky students who get admitted to the program receive a full-ride tuition and a stipend. They also get to take the stage alongside pros in their third year.
“Most students spend five to six years trying to be cast in a production by Frank Galati, and, here, it’s part of your education getting cast in a production by Frank Galati,” Leaming says. Galati is the Tony Award-winning director and writer who directed this season’s “1776” at Asolo Rep.
After personally auditioning the students in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, Leaming selects the 12 who will receive an offer from his program.
They are passionate and committed to the craft. They must have a spark and a dramatic imagination — much like the one he shares.
“You’ve made it big in theater if you can actually have a career in theater,” he says.
He’s pleased to have one alumni touring as Santa Claus in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas spectacular and another group of his students opening up theater companies in New York and getting great reviews. He has students acting professionally everywhere — he’s glad to see them develop throughout his program, graduate, then put down roots in the profession.
“The best thing a graduate can say, which one actress just said to me, is, ‘I gave up my day job because I can support myself (as an actor) in the theater,’” he says.
If You Go
‘The Game’s Afoot’
When: 8 p.m. Friday, March 29. Runs through May 12
Where: Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: $20 to $75
Info: Call 351-8000
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 9. Runs through April 28
Where: FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: $28 to $29
Info: Call 351-9010, Ext. 2311
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