Founder of ECU Theatre dead at 83

By Jeff Woodruff
ECU School of Theatre and Dance

The founder of what is today the East Carolina University School of Theatre and Dance, Edgar Loessin, died April 22 in Norfolk, Va.

Eastern North Carolina began its love affair with Loessin in the early 60s when then president of East Carolina College, Dr. Leo Jenkins, asked Loessin to create a drama program from scratch in Greenville.

Born in Thrall, Texas, Loessin grew up in Houston and began his theatre work with Nina Vance. From there he attended Southwestern University and The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where he held the Kay Kaiser Theatre Scholarship, and received an MFA degree in Directing from The Yale Drama School.

Next came serving two years in the U.S. Army, but even here he was not too far from the stage. While stationed at Fort Holabird in Baltimore (now closed), he was also a part-time instructor at a local theater school.

Loessin next moved to New York City, where he worked with The Actor’s Studio and Julius Monk at the Upstairs at the Downstairs. He stage managed Show Girl with Carol Channing, Lend an Ear, The Boyfriend, a national tour of Gypsy with Mary McCarty and Jules Munchin as well as a six month Las Vegas run. He also directed summer and winter stock throughout the east.

In 1962, Dr. Jenkins, an avid arts supporter, hired Loessin to create and chair the Department of Drama and Speech at East Carolina College. During that first year, the department consisted of Edgar Loessin (directing) and John Sneden (designing) and operated under the auspices of the English department.

In the spring of 1963, the Department of Drama and Speech was officially established and several new faculty members were hired. The semi-professional summer theatre began in 1964 and kicked-off with no less than six major musicals in as many weeks resulting in a significant amount of recognition for the college and the department.

Since then, scores of dramas, comedies, and musical comedies have been performed at ECU, many of them directed by Loessin. His musical productions featured large casts, elaborate sets and costumes, sophisticated choreography, and full orchestra. “When we began, nobody else in North Carolina was doing musicals on this scale” he said proudly. Though known for his musicals, Loessin did not necessarily prefer them to other theatrical forms.

“Musicals are an important part of our commercial theater; they are a medium through which things can be accomplished that are not possible in straight theater,” he explained. “In the hands of a good composer and librettist, musicals are great theater.”

Over the intervening years, playhouse and summer theatre audiences have enjoyed many major premiers. These included operas such as Carlisle Floyd’s The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair, starring Norman Treigle and Patricia Neway with Julius Rudel of the New York City Opera as music director, and Martin Mailman’s Moby Dick – Rehearsed; several plays including two by Romulus Linney-The Sorrows of Frederick and Holy Ghosts, Reynolds Price’s A Long and Happy Life, and Muriel Resnick’s Let’s Lunch starring Sharon Stone; and an original musical, The Flight Brothers.

Also noteworthy have been engagements of professional actors who have worked side-by-side with ECU students including Sidney Blackmer, Kevin Kline, Michael Learned, Orson Beane, Catherine Bach, Karen Grassley, Kim Hunter, Grant Show, and Gary Beach, among many others.

One of these visiting professionals came in 1967 and has never left; Loessin married actress Amanda Meiggs a week after he directed her in the title role of Racine’s Phaedra.

During that time, Loessin oversaw the development of many of today’s performers including Beth Grant (who’s credited with over 150 productions including No Country for Old Men, and numerous television appearances), Connie Ray (My Name Is Earl TV series and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers), and the girl he cast as Tiger Lilly in the 1983 Playhouse’s production of Peter Pan, Sandra Bullock.

For his work in North Carolina theatre, he received The O. Max Gardner Award, The Roanoke Island Morrison Award, The Carolina Playmakers Outstanding Alumni Award, and was featured by The Raleigh News and Observer as Tarheel of the Week. In 2001, in recognition for his being responsible for East Carolina’s emergence as a major force in the university and professional theatre in the region, ECU renamed its producing theatres the ECU/Loessin Playhouse and the ECU/Loessin Summer Theatre in his honor.

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