Pomona Professor Leonard Pronko Retires After 57 Years

Leonard Pronko first came
to Pomona College in 1957 when they needed a new adjunct professor of French language
and literature. Since then, Pronko—the epitome of a Renaissance man—has taught Spanish, Italian, acting, theater
history, and Kabuki theater courses. He has directed numerous plays, traveled
around the world, published numerous books and dissertations, and performed in operas. He helped bring
theater of the absurd and Kabuki to the United States, and he received the Pomona College Wig Distinguished Professor Award twice—as well as the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the government of Japan. 

When Sam Gold PO ’11 took his first class with Pronko, he was inspired by Pronko’s incredible depth of knowledge. 

“I thought, ‘This is what college is about,'”Gold said. “We would sit and listen as Leonard would make the most insightful comments on his works. Yet it seemed like everything was he said was made up on the spot. It was phenomenal.”

In celebration of his 57 years of work at Pomona and in recognition of his retirement, the Department of Theatre and Dance is hosting a community event entitled “Theatrical Journeys: Arrivals and Departures.” Gold and professor Thomas Leabhart will hold a discussion in Seaver Theatre on May 2 from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Both Leabhart and Gold—who is now a working actor, writer, and puppeteer—will speak with Pronko about his career, as well as the theater world that students and younger actors like Gold will enter if they choose to pursue careers in the field.

Pronko first began acting at a
young age, and knew he wanted to continue the art throughout the rest of his
life. However, when he first went to college, Pronko decided to study languages
to develop skills for a career in academia. During this time, he also
performed in plays, studied music, and sang with the New Orleans Opera
Company while pursuing his Ph.D. at Tulane University. 

While Pronko was on a fellowship in
France, an old classmate recommended him to teach at Pomona. After a casual dinner with a Pomona English professor on sabbatical in France, he was offered the job and soon departed for Claremont.

Set on devoting all his research to
theater, Pronko took advantage of the numerous resources available to him and the relatively painless academic publishing world of the early 1960s. His first publication in
1962 was based on research of French absurdist plays he saw on his yearly
summer visits to Mexico. The book sparked a movement and made the genre popular within the United States. 

Avant-Garde was quite a success because
it got reviewed by The New York Times on page 1 of the book review section along with another book, The Theatre of
the Absurd
, that came out at the same time,” Pronko said.

For Pronko’s first sabbatical,
he traveled around the world on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study Eastern
theater’s influence on the West. After traveling to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan,
the Philippines, Bali, Vietnam, India, Iran, Egypt, Rome, and Paris, Pronko
wrote his most well-known book, Theatre
East and West
, about the importance of “total” theater and what the West can
learn from Eastern theater.

While in Japan, Pronko fell in love with Kabuki
theater and decided to put on some of the first performances of the art in the
United States. Generally known for its elaborate drama and makeup, Kabuki is a classical Japanese art form that blends dance and drama.

Pronko called his first show a form of “creative Kabuki” because
he was not yet trained and thus provided his own interpretation of the practice. He
later traveled back to Japan and became the first non-Japanese trained in
Kabuki at the National Theatre of Japan. Pronko went on to direct productions at Pomona and professional theaters across the United States, receiving great acclaim for his work.

Over the next 40 years, Pronko
continued to teach a diversity of subjects at Pomona. Although he began putting on productions at Pomona in the 1960s, he did not officially join the theater department until 1984, when he became its chair.

“One thing that has been
great about teaching at Pomona is its interest in interdepartmental things and
doing things across disciplines,” Pronko said. “I could work in three different departments
like Asian studies, languages, and theater at once, which let me be free to
reach out in various directions.”

Pronko has been an inspiration and friend for many colleagues and students who have taken courses
with him or acted in his plays over the years.

“Leonard’s influence on the
college as a whole has been tremendous,” Leabhart said. “He is a brilliant scholar, a great
colleague, and a completely civilized person.” 

Gold expressed his admiration for Pronko as a person and as a brilliant, interdisciplinary artist. 

“He is a role model for me in life in general,” Gold said. “If I could have half the career
he has had, I would be very satisfied in my life. He is a generalist now
because he has been a specialist in so many things. Essentially, Pronko has
embodied the platonic ideal of a liberal arts education.”

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