TOY gets a new managing director
Meet Kevin Leary
New managing director of Theatre of Youth, Kevin Leary
Photo by kc kratt
With The Shakespeare Stealer, Theatre of Youth gears up for its third show this season, but the second for Kevin Leary, who assumed the mantle of managing director in early October. The Olean native came to TOY as many theater professionals come back to Western New York—the long way.
The son of two Saint Bonaventure math professors, Leary remembers clearly the day when, and the street corner where, he asked if he could take dance lessons along with his sister. “The next thing you know, I’m in dance classes, one thing leads to another, I started doing the small town circuit, and, eventually, somebody said I should try some theater,” Leary recalls. That suggestion led to theater roles, including one in Oliver at Artpark, after which Leary’s voice teacher suggested his parents let him audition in New York. And that’s how Leary ended up on a nine-month national tour of Camelot at age fourteen.
“As a kid, seeing the country and meeting new people was a lot of fun, but [I see now that it] put a toll on the family,” says Leary. “My dad was home with my brother and sister, and mom was with me; she’s a licensed tutor so she could be tutor and guardian at the same time. She had to give up teaching at Saint Bonaventure, so it wasn’t fair. At the end of the show, my parents were like ‘no more of this while you’re in school.’”
Leary can see now that his parents did him a “great service,” by allowing him to have a childhood, something that often came up in discussions on the road. “There was a little bit of disappointment, but I was involved in so many others things. I loved team swimming; I lost a year of high school swimming, which sort of sucked. Doing shows on the road is one thing but also nice to do shows with your friends. I missed my brother and sister. And I can relate to high school kids because I had their experience,” says Leary. “If I’d continued to tour, I wouldn’t have turned into the professional I became. When I came back, I was able to study with Tom Ralabate at UB; that changed the dancer I became.” Leary also continued to work locally, and, between school years, there was summer stock. It was there he met mentor Joe Deer, award-winning director and choreographer, and first Head of Musical Theatre at Wright State University, where Leary became one of the first to graduate from the new program.
“It was sort of a no-brainer,” Leary says. “It was a conservatory program, even at a state university, and I knew what Joe wanted to build. The good news is, it’s exactly what he has built; they graduate kids who go to Broadway. That was the design; our class was supposed to start that. Our class had some success and was able to start the trend.”
But Leary learned more than acting at Wright; he was able to direct, choreograph, teach, produce, and write. “One of the things Joe said to me was ‘If you come here, you’re ours for four years; we don’t want you taking two years of training and leaving,’” Leary remembers. “As a college kid, I was thinking, if I find work, why wouldn’t I leave? But, as I get older, as I’m sitting here now at TOY, I get it, because those four years were about more than becoming a professional actor; they were about learning to make a life in theater. I owe so much to them.”
Admittedly, it still was a while before Leary’s focus shifted away from professional acting. Post college graduation, he quickly booked Music Man, followed by 42nd Street, tours that kept him busy for nearly four years. Though he’ll concede that it’s easier for males to book musical theater roles, he sees it as fair trade. “If you’re a male in our society, especially in Western New York, and you think about what you have to go through with societal pressure and bullying because you’re a dancer—and I lived that for fifteen years because to be a good dancer, you need to make it your life—when you get to the end of that road, if you get a gig, you say to yourself, ‘This is why I didn’t cave to peer pressure, because I was building myself this career.’ There’s a fortitude, and I’ll speak to all the male dancers out there: girls don’t have to go that road, so the men who make it to the end and put in that hard work and time, I say, ‘Yeah, it might not be fair to women, but it wasn’t fair for the men to have to go through what they had to go through.’”
And yet, Leary isn’t dancing now. Or even acting (much). But the transition, he says, was as natural as it was welcome. It started when he got married to a fellow dancer in summer of 2005. Tired of dancing, she wanted to enroll in UB’s new arts management program. So back to Buffalo they came, and, while his wife matriculated, Leary pursued theater work and discovered he was ready for a break as well.
“You get weary touring for four straight years, and I was loving the new life, taught a lot of dance, worked on the side, did the first real job of my entire life—landscaping, manual labor, and it was great, because you have a whole new appreciation for the easiness that your life has,” Leary says. “I did that for half a year and then got a phone call from the choreographer from the 42nd Street tour.”
And so Leary headed to Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut to be a dance captain/swing/assistant choreographer for five months, and returned home to teach dance at UB and work at high schools. It wasn’t long before he was tapped to dance captain/assistant direct a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang national tour, working with Broadway’s JoAnn Hunter; though he was reluctant to go back on the road, he took the acting gig to get the director credit.
“Working with JoAnn was a transformative experience,” Leary says. “This is what the top level looks like, working with really awesome people, but that was also the show that convinced me I didn’t want to act. It was over. It was done. I got three months in, loved the creative process, putting it together, problem solving during tech, but we got on the road and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Part of it had to do with commercial theater, realizing that actors are pawns and [this show] was all about a two-million-dollar car. The ivory tower of beautifully aesthetic, socially moving theater burned in front of my eyes.”
Back in Buffalo, Leary took stock, and enrolled at UB himself to pursue a master’s degree in arts management and theater; he worked as administrative assistant to the director through his 2013 graduation and beyond, still continuing to grapple with his desire to do socially relevant theater while honoring his commercial past. On the side, he worked musicals at Maryvale High School. It was the choreography in Maryvale’s 42nd Street that impressed Lancaster Opera House artistic director David Bondrow enough to call Leary and ask him to choreograph a 2012 production of Damn Yankees.
“At that time, I was buying a new home, getting a divorce, writing a thesis, doing a forty-hour-a-week job,” Leary recalls. “I said ‘I can’t commit,’ and went home and thought, ‘What am I going to do with my life? This is what I want to do, somebody’s willing to take a chance on me, and I was like, ‘If you say no to this, what else are you going to say no to?’ So I did it.”
Leary enjoyed the gig—as well as those that followed—but four years later, still at UB, still at the Opera House, still doing odd acting jobs, Leary was ready to take stock again. “Once you realize you want to run a theater, and there are limited number of those in Buffalo, and starting a new theater company means building an audience and a fundraising base and marketing and finding corporate and government support, all while working forty hours a week … that’s what led to the point where I was looking for work,” says Leary. Though he sent resumes all over the country, it was a colleague’s lead that brought him to TOY.
“There’s great potential for growth here,” Leary says. “I love the mission statement—the pursuit of innovative and relevant theater; that’s very appealing. The more Meg [Quinn, artistic director] and I talk, the more we get back to the roots of what made this company in its infancy. They used to do street theater, get in a van or truck, and go into the community; it’s so far removed from everything we know about TOY now. We’ve talked a lot about what makes TOY TOY and how we want to do theater in the future. Right now we’re in the investigative stage; it’s exciting times. Everything is up for discussion, and that’s what drew me in, the idea of the possible. I am committed to bringing theater programming to as many youth as I can in WNY and that is what informs every single decision I make at this desk every single day.”
Read about TOY's production of The Shakespeare Stealer here.
Playwright Donna Hoke covers theater for Spree and Forever Young.