In 1972 Robert Leonard founded the community-focused Road Company in Johnson City, Tenn., and served as artistic director until it folded in 1998. He now heads the MFA program in directing and public dialogue at Virgina Tech, which has only one student in each class year. Michael Rohd had been traveling around the country doing community-based theatre projects with his own company, Hope Is Vital, before entering Leonard’s program in 1997. Under Leonard’s watchful eye, Rohd and some fellow students went on to form Sojourn Theatre, an ensemble that has since moved to Portland, Ore.
MICHAEL ROHD: Bob is very rigorous about demanding, at the start of your time with him, that you put on paper your goals and particular vision that you want to explore. You use that to create a map for your relationship.
ROBERT LEONARD: The MFA programs here are based on the tutorial studio approach. We are investing resources in the progress of individual people. It’s essential in developing a curriculum to do this in a very intentional, careful way. When Michael came in, it was absolutely crystal clear that he had a specific intention—he wanted to have a company, an ensemble. And that intention became the glue for the work that we did together.
ROHD: Bob was interested in helping me find other mentors in addition to him. He pointed me toward Ping Chong, whom I work with a lot now. And Bob insisted that, if I was really interested in movement theatre, I simply grab a group of students and, outside my production work, explore in a studio on a consistent basis.
LEONARD: My work in Johnson City was in large part investigating how a theatre becomes part of a community. On most college campuses, there’s a boundary between the town and the campus. You can cross it, but it sets up a specific set of problems. Michael began to jump into those issues and we worked out how to do that.
ROHD: We were doing The Love of the Nightingale and I was interested in having community dialogues. Bob’s wife had a colleague named Judy who worked at the Women’s Resource Center. Judy and I began, as these relationships often begin, slowly, delicately, having conversations about how this project could be an interesting way to explore both of our interests. And Bob was a sounding board.
LEONARD: At the Road Company, it took me many years to develop a relationship of trust with, let’s say, the chamber of commerce. For a student, those three years go by very quickly, and how do you build any kind of longer-term relationship with a community organization? The relationships that Michael found were possible because of what had been laid down prior to his being there.
ROTH: The first read-through of Nightingale literally became an open public performance. Afterward we had a conversation with the audience about what the play was about for them. And then every week during the rehearsal process we had open rehearsals/workshops, and we would spend half of those rehearsals doing physical generative work with community members that was eventually woven into the actual piece. So by the time we got to the show, we had an audience that had been on this journey with us.
LEONARD: When Michael moved from Virginia to Oregon, he was in conversation with me fairly regularly about all aspects of his company, from artistic to organizational. I was able to have pretty good comprehension of what he was talking about because the company had been here.
ROHD: Bob’s focus on attire and what I wore was a little intense.
LEONARD: That holey shirt was just holey!
ROHD: (laughs) Our tastes are maybe different. But it’s not like he was trying to build mini-Bobs. We seem to, at the end of the day, be happy to sit down and talk. Mentors and mentees don’t have to be best friends, but for it to work they have to have a desire to spend time together, having a drink, say.