David Weiss, a Look Back at 37 Years at UVA
Sometimes a professional title doesn’t tell the whole story of a career and a life. David Weiss, for instance, was a theater educator and consultant by trade. But when you look at all he accomplished at and for the University of Virginia, the term architect may be more appropriate. Weiss, who passed way at the age of 89 last December, was a true fixture not only at UVA, but in the American theater community. He taught in the Department of Drama for 37 years, and served as its chair for 16. There was almost nothing Weiss could not or did not do for the Department of Drama. He oversaw the creation of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Theatre. Along with colleagues Roger Boyle and George Black, he established the Heritage Repertory Theatre as a professional adjunct to the Drama Department’s production program, and served as its Producing Director for the company’s first decade.
Today, the Heritage Theatre Festival stands as the longest running professional summer theatre in the Commonwealth. Among his many lasting legacies is the Drama Department building, as Weiss worked tirelessly overseeing its planning and construction. His leadership and mentorship at UVA lasted long beyond his official years here. Current Drama Chair Colleen Kelly said. “David continued to deeply care about the Drama Department, and about the students who were coming through here. He was always willing to talk with me about what it was like to chair a department and how to succeed as both a theatre professional and theatre educator.” Kelly remembers fondly Weiss’s ability to see the bigger picture when it came to the inevitable commonplace struggles that come with running a university theatre department. “He was very good at talking to administrators and the day-to-day duties of putting out fires,” she said. “I’ll always remember one day when he came into my office, took one look at me, and said, ‘You know Colleen, not everything has to be a battle.’ And I thought, you know, maybe I can pick and choose, and let go of some things. David was serious and he was tenacious, but there was always that sense of humor. He never got so caught up in things that he lost the joy or pleasure in what he was doing.” LaVahn Hoh paused when asked to share some memories of his years with Weiss. After all, there are a lot to choose from.
The two first met in 1968, and Weiss hired Hoh into the department the next year. One lasting lesson came in a single comment that Hoh made a cornerstone of the rest of his career. While working on one of the countless sets on which they collaborated, Weiss said that putting black masking on the edges of a set was a “cop out. You need more scenery over there.” It was a lesson Hoh would carry with him for the rest of his career. “I can’t tell you how many times over the years I would be working on something and I would hear David’s booming voice in my head saying, ‘That’s a cop out!’” That booming voice and literal towering presence were part of an overall impact that have been felt by generations of UVA Drama students. “David Weiss propelled the department to the heights it has reached today,” Hoh said. Some of that work was done far from Grounds. He was a mainstay of the Institute of Outdoor Theatre, based in North Carolina, and designed 18 outdoor historical dramas throughout the United States. Following his 1991 retirement, Weiss was an active and highly valued consultant to architects designing theaters and amphitheaters around the country. He was a key figure in the Southeastern Theatre Conference, serving as its Vice President and President and earning an award for his distinguished service to the organization. He also served on the board of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), was a member of the American Theatre Association, and was a founding member of USITT in Higher Education. Yet, as he branched out into these worlds, Weiss kept the interests of his passion for the department front and center. “David was instrumental in encouraging me and supporting me to serve on boards of various theatre organizations,” Kelly said. “I always so appreciated how invested he was in the department, both as it lived within the university but also within the larger picture of theatre in America. He was continually focused on all the aspects of what a theatre department meant to a university and the role it could play.” Hoh recalled Weiss talking about how important it was to Weiss to be representing UVA and his beloved department. “David always said, ‘I am flying the banner for the department. I am hoisting the flag for the good of the order. He was incredibly proud of what we had accomplished.” Those looking to build on his remarkable vision and tireless dedication can support David’s legacy by contributing to the David and Penny Weiss Endowed Fund.