Lunch with Mimi: Rick Lombardo, director of the Penn State School of Theatre
An award-winning stage director, artistic director, and playwright, Rick Lombardo became the director of the Penn State School of Theatre in July 2018. In this role, he oversees more than 200 students, 40 faculty members, four undergraduate degrees, multiple graduate degrees, and is the artistic director of Penn State Centre Stage.
Prior to coming to Penn State, Lombardo was chair and artistic director of the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at Kennesaw State University for three years. He also spent seven years as the artistic director at San Jose Repertory Theatre, and 13 years as the producing artistic director of Greater Boston’s New Repertory Theatre, overseeing its development into one of New England’s leading mid-size theaters.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor of science degree in psychology. He earned his master of fine arts degree in stage direction from Boston University School for the Arts.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Lombardo at The Nittany Lion Inn to discuss the return of Penn State Centre Stage summer programing, what performances are planned for the upcoming season, and what the School of Theatre envisions for its future.
Mimi: I'm so glad we finally have a chance to sit down and talk. I think I attended the very first event that you were an important part of when you arrived. And if I remember correctly, it was the opening of this incredible recital hall.
Rick: It was our season preview event in August 2018, and we held it on the new Olsan-Stone Terrace. That is the beautifully new landscaped space that's between the School of Theatre building and the new recital hall for the School of Music. It was the first time that anybody had used it. It was intended as an event space.
Mimi: And we can both say we were part of history. So, you've been with us a year. Give me your reaction to the university, to the community, to what we like to call town and gown. How would you describe your initial experience?
Rick: Folks told me to be prepared for how friendly the community is and how friendly everyone is at Penn State. But those are just words until you actually experience it. And I found that to be really true. I've been through several leadership transitions at other universities or professional theater companies. And this is one of the most welcoming communities that I've moved into. I really felt that, and it's been great for me and for my family. In terms of the School of Theatre, I found an incredible panoply of faculty artists, student artists, a really impressive collection of people that I get to work with every day, which is great fun.
Mimi: What would you change?
Rick: We’re working on evolving and developing all the time. Some immediate changes have already happened. We've restarted the summer theater portion of Penn State Centre Stage. That was such a core of what Penn State Centre Stage did for many years. It was stopped five or six years ago. One of the first decisions I made was to try to bring that back for the summer season.
Mimi: Great decision. I hope this conversation helps more people realize that it's back.
Rick: With the summer portion of Centre Stage, it wasn't as if the university suddenly gave us more funding to start this again. We have to sell tickets and we have to raise money. And it’ll take sales to support the program. It’s such an important program for us, because it is not only a significant aspect of what we do in terms of community outreach and community engagement, but State College in the summer wants to still feel vital and have cultural options.
We're bringing back the summer theater this year with three productions—a new musical that premiered in June called The Last Day; one of the writers is Mike Reid, a Penn State alum. There will be a family children's musical, Frog and Toad, and a play, Albatross that I’ve been directing around the world for the last three years, a one-actor adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with an immersive multimedia environment. It’s really fascinating. With Frog and Toad and Albatross, we scheduled them so that they're both being performed at the same time and during Arts Fest. Frog and Toad will be in the Playhouse on campus; Albatross will be in the Downtown Theater, right on Allen Street in the midst of Arts Fest.
Mimi: This community is pretty good to the arts, on-campus and off. The amount of nonprofit quality services we have on- and off-campus, a lot of it is through philanthropic money.
Rick: I agree. One of the reasons why I'm restarting the summer theater is that right after I started at Penn State last summer, I was meeting folks in the community like yourself who have put down roots, run businesses, and raise families here. And over and over again, I kept hearing, “We really miss that summer theater.” It was a pretty significant recurring theme. And so, I thought, there's a need here for us to do it.
We're known for the musical theater program, the bachelor of fine arts in musical theater is top five in the country. Probably what folks don't know about us is that we now also have the BFA in acting, which just graduated its very first class of 12. So, it's a program that is now growing by leaps and bounds as well.
Mimi: What made you choose your career in theater?
Rick: Well, I think it chose me. I've always been very creative. That is just part of who I am. And when I was younger, I was a musician. I made films; I made animated films. I was a photographer. I had a dark room in my parents’ basement. And I acted in high school plays. I just thought that these are all the fun things that I did, but that nobody would ever really have a career doing that. So, my intention was to be a doctor. And that's what I went to college for. I was a pre-med student at Georgetown University and a biology major. And I just said, “I'm not going to do anything creative. I'm just going to focus on my studies.” And then at the end of my freshman year, I was starting to get a little frustrated. I got first pulled into playing in the band that traveled along with the basketball team; I was the drummer in the band. And then I saw this audition notice that the student drama club was doing an original musical. I decided I was going to go audition for that. So, I did the spring musical. And you know, what we often say in the theater is, “When you find your people, you find your people.” And I found my people.
I still was a pre-med student. And then someone in the drama club asked me to come back in my sophomore year and direct a little show for the incoming freshmen. And I said, “Sure I'll do that.” I did that and had a great experience, and then I changed my major two weeks later.
I didn't get a theater degree because at Georgetown, they didn't offer theater degrees in those days. So, I have a bachelor of science degree with a minor in theater and then I went on to graduate study in directing. I knew from the beginning of my sophomore year; I called my parents and I said, “I'm going to be a director.”
Mimi: What's the favorite show you ever directed?
Rick: It’s really tricky, because I also write. Some of them are favorites because I also wrote them. I co-wrote a rock musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of The Snow Queen. I directed the first production about four years ago. I did it Off Broadway; it's been extremely successful, and it's been done in about 40 productions around the world.
Of the shows that I haven't written, I'm one of those directors who moves back and forth very easily between directing musical theater and directing what we call straight theater, which are plays. So, I'm a big Shakespeare nerd. I’ve probably done Hamlet four times, and it's probably my favorite play to direct. And I love directing musicals. I would say probably my favorite was being able to do Spring Awakening a couple of times.
Mimi: What are some of the prospects you hope to bring to the stage in the Happy Valley that are in your mind for the near future?
Rick: We picked a really interesting season for Centre Stage next year. We have two different parts of what we call Centre Stage. There's the summer season, which is really distinct because everyone there is working professionally. It's not in any way part of the academic season. And then there's Centre Stage during the rest of the year, which is a hybrid of professional and academic theater.
I'm personally directing a production of Angels in America in the spring of 2020 in the Playhouse as part of the Centre Stage main season. I'm starting to plan what our summer is going to look like next year. I really can't talk about any of those things right now, but there's a possibility of a couple of things that I think are pretty exciting. We've got two big musicals in Centre Stage next season. We are doing Spamalot, and we're also doing Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Those are both going to be in the Playhouse Theatre; in addition, a fun new play called She Kills Monsters. That's really based on the whole Dungeons and Dragons world. All of the young people are very much into that Dungeons and Dragons world and it'll really speak to the student population on campus.
Mimi: What is the future of the School of Theatre?
Rick: As I said, the BFA musical theater program is a top-five program in the country. And we need to keep it there and we need to make it the best program in the country. I think that's achievable. Our program in design and technology has been ranked top eight in the country. Let's get that to top five in the country. Our BFA in acting is the newest program. Let's get that to top 10 in the country.
I want us to be known as the finest training program across disciplines in America, where if you're interested in design, technology, stage management, musical theater, acting, all of it, that we're known for being at the top in every single category of our training. It’s about faculty, curriculum, and focus. I think that's totally achievable, because we're pretty close to being there.
In terms of Centre Stage, I want to see us being able to work more on the development of new work and have more work that we begin to move out into the world in really exciting ways.
Mimi: Is there a playwriting class?
Rick: We do have a playwriting class. But it's also about bringing in writers who are working on new work. We're doing some of that right now in musical theater, where every year we commission a team of a composer, lyricist, and a book writer to come write a musical for our senior class. Some of those musicals are going to be able to be successful and go out to the world.
So, The Last Day, which we're producing at Centre Stage this summer, was a musical that we commissioned two years ago. The musical Love in Hate Nation by Joe Iconis, who's very successful on Broadway right now with Be More Chill. John Simpkins directed Love in Hate Nation. And of course, Dominique Morisseau, who is a MacArthur Genius Grant fellow and represented on Broadway right now as a playwright – we've commissioned her work and it's gone on into the world. So, we want to make sure that we're being a breeding ground for new theater.
One thing that we're also working on that I’m pretty excited about is a project called #HereToo. We're working with one of the artists from the Tectonic Theater Project. They're incredibly well known for things like the Laramie Project. #HereToo is an original theater piece that we're creating with our students based on school shootings and the impact on the students and the community. We did a small workshop last year with the artists that we brought in with our students, and then we're doing a bigger workshop this fall, which will be in the Pavilion Theatre. It’ll be the next step in development and there may be one more step after that to full production. So, we have a lot going on and I'm really excited about the new work that we're trying to focus on.
Mimi: What can we do to get more of our friends and families on- and off-campus to contribute to some of these special things that you're doing for us?
Rick: One of the biggest challenges that we have right now is that there are a lot of incredible young artists, specifically from out of state, from economically disadvantaged communities, that if we were able to bring them here, it would change their lives. We often find that we just don't have the scholarship resources to be able to support bringing in some of those folks who would prosper and thrive so well if they were able to access the instruction that we're capable of giving them and they’d go on to extraordinary careers.
Mimi: So how do we do that?
Rick: We need donations to help build up our scholarship funds. To endow a scholarship permanently is a significant amount of money. But if someone were to give $5,000 or $3,000 a year, sometimes that amount of money is the difference between a student who could say, “Yes, I'll go to Penn State,” or “No, I'm going to have to go to this less expensive school in my home state.” We lose some of those young people from underserved communities because they just can’t afford it.
Mimi: Well, I hope we have enough loyal readers that you will see results from this conversation, because I'm here to tell you that you make life better in Happy Valley with this incredible overall program that has evolved. And I thank you on behalf of all of us.
Rick: Thank you.