Although an official department of drama was not established until 1963, pageants, plays, drama clubs, and a general enthusiasm for theatre prevailed throughout the early years of East Carolina's history. From its inception in 1907, the (then named) East Carolina Teachers Training School presented Shakespeare comedies, light operas, and historical pageants. A new tradition called the senior play began in 1911. Given the absence of one central department to organize the production, many departments and classes, including home economics (costumes), art (scenery), and music (musical accompaniment), contributed to make the senior play possible.
In addition to the senior play, other clubs ( such as the Poe, Lanier, and Emerson societies) sponsored and created their own productions. Student theatre organizations were also formed, including "The Mimers" in 1933 and the “Chi Pi Players in 1934.
In 1934, four official drama courses were added to the university curriculum. The courses were funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, which was part of President Roosevelt's New Deal agency. Although the courses only remained part of the curriculum for two years, the program produced several one-act plays and increased appreciation for theatre on campus.
It wasn't until 1952, however, that the creative outlets of the students could be produced in an actual theatre. The McGinnis Auditorium was constructed as part of a campus-wide renovation and named after Howard J. McGinnis, who had been the registrar for many years and who was the interim president. The McGinnis Auditorium was meant to provide a "multi-purpose" auditorium and a theatre for the college. In 1954, President Messick (for whom the current theatre building is named) got a grant from the Danforth Foundation for the purpose of developing greater awareness of religion in human culture. One outcome of this grant was the creation of a drama program under the direction of Dr. Lucile Charles. She worked with the Inter-Religious Council and produced religious dramas. The school year production season also included modern dramas, comedies, and classical works.
In 1962, Chancellor Leo Jenkins, who was very supportive of the arts, hired Edgar Loessin, a professional director and stage manager from New York, to create and chair the Department of Drama and Speech at East Carolina College. 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.
In 2003, the College of Fine Arts and Communication was established by the University and the Department became the School of Theatre and Dance.
The Department/School has only had two unit heads in its history. Edgar Loessin established the Department of Drama & Speech in 1963 and continued to be chair until 1990, 27 years later, when he retired. John Shearin, a professional stage and film/TV actor and a professional stage director-producer, became the chair in 1990 and continues to serve as the Director of the School of Theatre and Dance.