It wasn’t until 1962 that eastern North Carolina began its love affair with Edgar Loessin. It was that year when he was asked by then President of East Carolina College, Leo Jenkins, to create a drama program from scratch in Greenville. Fortunately for us, he accepted.
Loessin’s interest in theatre began during this childhood in Houston, Texas. He began his career as a child actor in a children's musical about pirates and seeing all the traveling "medicine shows" that came to town. While still a lad he saw Helen Hayes and Raymond Massey perform at the Houston Music Hall and worked backstage in many Houston area dramatic productions. That spark led him to abandon an earlier ambition for a "secure" career as a petroleum engineer to study drama instead. After graduation from high school, he was awarded the Kay Kyser Scholarship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where he received his B.A. Degree in Dramatic Arts. He then attended the Yale School of Drama to earn an M.F.A. Degree in Directing. He received further training at the famed Actors Studio in New York.
Next came serving two years in the U.S. Army but even here he was not too far from the stage as he was also a part-time instructor at a Baltimore theater school. After serving his country, Loessin resumed his career in New York City. He directed plays Off-Broadway and in numerous summer theaters. On Broadway, he was stage manager for Carol Channing’s Show Girl and the national tour of Gypsy with Mary McCarty and Jules Munchin.
In 1962, Chancellor Leo Jenkins, who was very supportive of the arts, hired Loessin to create and chair the Department of Drama and Speech at East Carolina College. The chance to teach, establish a new department, and direct his own choice of serious plays as well as musicals proved enough of a temptation to lure him here. Edgar Loessin, the chair, and John Sneden, the scenic designer were the only two faculty members in the new department that first year ('62-'63). During the fall of 1962, the department operated under the auspices of the English department, but in the spring of 1963, the Department of Drama and Speech was officially established. And in the following fall, several new faculty members, including, Albert Pertalion, Helen Steer, Rosalind Roulston, and Douglas Ray were hired. In 1997 the name of the department was changed to the Department of Theatre and Dance. From the start, Loessin's drama program stressed practical preparation for theater careers.
"The pursuit of professionalism should be the goal in teaching students who want to work in theater, whether they're going on to Broadway or need to learn how to direct high school plays," he said. "We must push and fight to get the students to go as far as they can." His early Playhouse productions were ambitious in scope, challenging the students' capabilities. That first season included J.B. (Archibald MacLeish’s retelling of the story Job), Once Upon a Mattress (the delightful musical comedy based on the Princess and the Pea), The Faithful Lightning (Kermit Hunter’s drama about Stonewall Jackson), and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
The Summer Theatre began in 1964 and kicked-off with no less than six major musicals in as many weeks; West Side Story, The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady, Anything Goes, The Merry Widow, and Li'l Abner. This resulted in a significant amount of recognition for the college and increased enrollment in the drama program, but little financial reward.
Since then, plays of nearly every type of drama in the western tradition have been performed at ECU, many of them directed by Loessin, and many of them musical comedies. However, contrary to what many local theater fans might suspect, Loessin did not necessarily prefer musicals 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." He does like to use the large casts most musicals call for, enabling many students to take part, and refuses to produce "diluted" versions of Broadway musical comedies for Summer Theatre.
Loessin's productions were lavish in scale, comparable to their New York counterparts, with elaborate sets and costumes, complex choreography and full orchestra. Performers were hired in auditions held throughout the eastern United States. "When we began, nobody else in North Carolina was doing musicals on this scale" he said proudly.
Over the intervening years, audiences to the playhouse and summer theatre enjoyed many major musicals as well as premiers such as Carlisle Floyd's opera, The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair, starring Norman Treigle and Patricia Neway with Julius Rudel of the New York City Opera as music director, the Martin Mailman opera Moby Dick – Rehearsed, two Romulus Linney plays, The Sorrows of Frederick (an episodic drama about the life of Frederick the Great) and Holy Ghosts (a play about a Southern snake-handling religious cult featuring Beth Grant), Reynolds Price’s A Long and Happy Life, and Muriel Resnick’s Let’s Lunch starring Sharon Stone. In addition he’s directed close to a dozen outdoor dramas by Kermit Hunter and Paul Green.
Also noteworthy have been engagements of professional stage and television actors who have come to Greenville to work with college students as guest artists, among them are 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. She became an important part of ECU's drama team, as teacher, promoter and performer.
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, numerous television appearances and voice-overs in animation), Connie Ray (My Name Is Earl TV series and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers), and of course the girl who played Tiger Lilly in the Playhouse’s 1983 production of Peter Pan, Sandra Bullock.
John Shearin, Loessin’s successor and Director of what is now the School of Theatre and Dance recalls many meetings with Loessin during and after the transition. He recalls asking Ed, as his friends call him, how was he able to pull off so many huge productions with such limited resources. Loessin went back to his Texas roots for a moment and replied; “You always bite off a little more than you can chew, and then keep chewing.”
In 2001, Shearin was also instrumental in convincing East Carolina University to rename its producing theatre organizations The ECU/Loessin Playhouse and the ECU/Loessin Summer Theatre in his honor. As Shearin said; “We realized that even though he had built this magnificent program from scratch and poured 30 years of his life into it, there was not so much as a piece of paper noting his accomplishment. We couldn’t name a building for him but we wanted to somehow recognize his being responsible for East Carolina's emergence as a major force in the university and professional theatre in the region.”
Since his retirement in 1991, Edgar and Amanda moved to Norfolk, Va. 1993, he began working at the local public radio stations, WHRO-FM, as an arts reviewer. His critiques of the opera, theatre and art exhibits were well known by area and national artists and listeners and are repeatedly quoted by major local art organizations and New York agents promoting their clients.
Edgar Loessin died Friday evening, April 22, 2011, and was cremated shortly thereafter. No public service has been planned at this time. Donations may be made to the Edgar and Amanda Loessin Acting Scholarship, c/o East Carolina University.