By Jeff Maisey
Over the past decade, Anthony Mark Stockard’s passionate vision for theatrical arts has been transformational for Norfolk State University.
In what was more or less an afterthought on the curriculum offerings at Norfolk State, the establishment of Norfolk State University Theatre Company with an accredited degree program, and a state-of-the-art, second to none campus theater has made the school one of the finest in the world for aspiring student actors/actresses, playwrights, sound and lighting engineers, set and costume designers. The education and experience students receive is top notched.
“When I arrived there was significantly less awareness that theater even existed on campus,” said Anthony Stockard, Norfolk State University Theatre Company’s Founder & Producing Artistic Director. “There was no documentation in student activities organizationally either. So I was told I needed to create new bylaws and everything organizationally for it to be functional.”
Before Stockard’s arrival ten years ago, Norfolk State Players was the name given to the theater department’s performance organization. To Stockard’s mind — and students at the time — the name seemed outdated, and so Norfolk State University Theatre Company was born.
“From that point I was challenged with the expectation that not many people came to shows,” said Stockard. “So we went out into the community and put fliers up; we put posters in businesses all over Hampton Roads.”
The grassroots approach by Stockard and students helped raise awareness of the theater programs. Prior to Stockard’s leadership and community outreach, 20 people in attendance was considered a good night for the university’s theatrical performances. Today, by contrast, almost every performance is sold-out in advance, an impressive turnaround.
Anthony Stockard is keen to give credit to the university for buying-in to his vision to enhance and elevate the theater program. His hiring was the first step in Norfolk State’s commitment to excellence and achievement.
Stockard graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts in Theatre Arts degree from Brandeis University in Boston — a private research university with a liberal arts focus. He soon moved to New York City to work in television and film before receiving an opportunity to run a professional theater company in Birmingham, Alabama.
It was during his time in Alabama that Stockard developed a love of teaching theater at his alma mater, Alabama State University, where he earned a BA in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in performance. Stockard taught five years at the school and elevated its theatrical program, winning a regional competition held by the Kennedy Center, before learning of a new opportunity to advance his skills at Norfolk State University.
Stockard was impressed with the students, faculty, and administrative team at NSU. He shared his ideas on every aspect, from a detailed performance hall design to education programs.
“The administration clearly knew who they were getting in me,” Stockard shared. “They were excited to have me and very supportive.”
That support for Stockard’s vision proved to be instrumental in the ultimate success of the theatre company.
“After they selected me, I hit the ground running,” he said. “They flew-in all the architects, subcontractors, and designers. The Dean at the time had us all in the room together — people from Chicago, New York, California — to plan the seating, furniture design, the audio, the equipment, everything. She told the room, this is the Director of Theater. He is the one who will be using the space. They let me lead the whole redesign for what is now the new theater on campus.”
After attendance increased at shows and revenue generated from live performances became noteworthy, the school committed to awarding scholarships in theater for the first time in the fall of 2018.
Stockard’s wish to create and implement a full-blown Drama & Theater degree program came to fruition as well.
“It’s been a wonderful experience developing and blossoming everything, and keeping the students fully engaged with all the development of it. They feel some ownership in the program and know they’re in a special place and time.”
Norfolk State University Theatre Company has also engaged the regional professional performing arts organizations, leading to collaborative co-presentations with Virginia Stage Company and the Virginia Arts Festival. Norfolk State is said to be the first historically Black college to forge such partnership, and one national theater magazine called it a “game changer.”
These experiences are true resume builders for students, whether in the role of acting, design, or production. They match their skills with seasoned pros, learning and gaining real life insights. These opportunities will make them all the more marketable when seeking careers in the professional arts after graduation or higher education fields.
For Norfolk State University Theatre Company’s 10th Anniversary season, Stockard programmed a selection of crowd-pleasers. These include “Thoughts of a Colored Man” (September 22-24, NSU Brown Memorial Hall Main Stage Theater), “The Queens Tribute: Whitney, Tina & Aretha” (October 22, NSU L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center), “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is ENUF” (November 17-19, Brown Memorial Hall Main Stage Theater), “A Valentines Tribute to Luther Vandross” (February 10, NSU L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center), “The Three Musketeers” with Virginia Stage Company (March 8-10, Wells Theatre), and “The Color Purple” (April 12-14, NSU Brown Memorial Hall Main Stage Theater).
The season begins September 19 with a documentary chronicling the school’s history with theater called “Something to Behold.”
On April 21, The 8th Annual NSU Theatre Company Awards will be presented at Brown Memorial Hall Main Stage Theater.
Now, we look forward to Anthony Stockard’s encore over the next decade of success. A standing ovation is in order.