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Theatre Professor and Kabuki Expert Leonard Pronko to Retire after 57 Years at Pomona

Professor Leonard Pronko, well-known and admired for his knowledge and teaching of Asian theatre, is retiring after 57 years at Pomona College.

Pronko is one of the U.S.’s leading experts on kabuki, a traditional Japanese art form that combines elaborate make-up and dance with stylized dramatic performance. First introduced to kabuki during a sabbatical in East Asia in the early 1960s, Pronko fell in love with the form’s theatricality and the beauty of its style.

He turned Pomona into a hub of dramatic experimentation, infusing classic works such as Macbeth with kabuki elements, and leading students in his own original productions such as Revenge at Spider Mountain, a so-called “kabuki western.” In 1967, Pronko published his landmark book Theater East and West, which urged playwrights and directors to consider the themes and methods of Asian drama as a way to enliven Western theatre.

“As a professor, Pronko is passionate beyond comparison,” says Sam Gold ’11, who worked closely with Pronko before receiving a Watson Fellowship his senior year to travel around the world studying puppet theatre. “His enthusiasm in class is absolutely infectious and his breadth of knowledge is mind-boggling.”

“As a director, he combines an intellectual's technical rigor with a humanist's empathic spirit—as well as an operatic sense of high drama—to bring classical theatre to life in a way that is just electrifying.”

Born in the Philippines and raised in Missouri, Pronko earned his B.A. from Drury College in Springfield, Mo. and his master’s from Washington University in St. Louis before receiving his Ph.D in French Literature from Tulane. Prior to Pomona, Pronko taught at the University of Kansas and Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio.

A two-time winner of the Wig Distinguished Professor Award, he joined Pomona in 1957 as an assistant professor of French language and literature, and went on to leave his mark in disciplines across the College, from theatre and acting to literature and Asian studies. Among his many achievements and honors, he made history in 1970 as the first non-Japanese person to study kabuki at the National Theatre of Japan. In 1985, he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Third Class, by the government of Japan for his efforts to promote knowledge of kabuki in the U.S.

Though he began his career in foreign languages, Pronko  always had a fascination for acting and drama. He started directing productions in the College’s Theatre Department almost as soon as he arrived, and over the decades brought numerous works to the stage from playwrights such as Shakespeare, Molière and Ibsen. In 1985, he was invited to join the department and became its chair, a professional reflection of “what had already happened in his own mind,” says longtime colleague and Professor of Theatre Thomas Leabhart.

The College has witnessed many changes since Pronko first arrived in Claremont. He remembers having to rent a tuxedo to attend the annual formal faculty reception, where he waltzed with his fellow professors in Frary Dining Hall to mark the start of the new school year. Through all the changes over the decades, “the one constant has been brilliance,” Pronko says of the students and colleagues he’s encountered.

An avid traveler, the theatre professor is looking forward to revisiting some of his favorite destinations around the world once he retires, from Italy to Indonesia. With a passion for opera and classical music, he plans to attend opera festivals in Europe and return to Japan for kabuki performances, as well as catch up on the many novels and history books on his reading list.

“He is the epitome of the term ‘Renaissance man,’” says Leabhart, who mentions Pronko’s talents as a cook and pastry chef in addition to his other hobbies. “It might as well have been coined for him.”

For his part, Pronko says he will miss “working on great plays with actors capable of understanding them and bringing them to life.” He hopes that students will take away from his classes a sense of openness to others and a more expansive way of thinking.

“It’s through literature and through drama that we learn otherness, and how to welcome the otherness of the world. These great writers wanted to wake people up. They wanted people to open their eyes and think for themselves, and I’ve tried to let my students do that as well.

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