Henry Fonte, a professor of theatre who emigrated from Cuba as a boy and broke new ground in higher education when he started a college program that produces original works, has been named the new chair of the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre Arts, as well as artistic director of the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.
Fonte starts at UM on August 1 after 12 years at The Hartt School, the performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford. He brings 30 years of experience to his new position, from acting in Off-Broadway and in regional theatres across the country, to writing, directing and producing new works for the stage.
“I’m thrilled about this new challenge, and I think the job is a great match for me,” says Fonte. “This is really coming full circle.”
Fonte left Cuba in 1961 when he was a boy, arriving in Miami with his mother and sister.
He graduated from Miami High School, where he played sports, but didn’t discover his passion for the theatre until he attended college. And even then, his long journey into the field began as a dare. As a junior at the University of Florida, Fonte regularly attended plays, bragging to friends that he could give a better performance than the actors on stage.
While he majored in English, he augmented his course load with classes in theatre and dramatic literature, preparing himself for his eventual enrollment in graduate school, where he dedicated his studies to acting and directing.
He started directing in New York City in 1983 as a founding member of the Pearl Theatre Company. Since then, he has directed more than 60 Actors’ Equity Association productions in venues ranging from 99 to 4,000 seats, from New York to California.
He joined The Hartt School in 1998 and founded its New Works Development Program that same year. To date, that program has produced 16 new plays and 14 new musicals, the latest of which, Band Geeks!, will have its world premiere at Goodspeed Musicals on Thursday, May 13.
At the time he started the initiative, “a college program producing and staging new works was rare,” he says. “Now a lot of schools are doing it, partnering with professional companies. But we really pioneered it. We were trailblazers.”
Producing new material is his passion. “That’s what I love most, doing works for which there is no template and you have to figure things out,” he says. “A play like Oklahoma! has been done 7,000 times, and there’s a template on how one does it. But I like to be the person who figures out that first template.”
For his entire tenure, Fonte was The Hartt School’s representative to the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, the service organization for professional musical theatre producers. Not only was he instrumental in the school being one of the first educational institutions invited to join, he was also the first representative from an educational institution to serve on its board of directors.
Fonte says he is excited about the growth potential of UM’s Department of Theatre Arts, and is looking forward to starting partnerships with regional theatres in the state.
“We are excited to welcome him to the University and back to Miami,” said Jacqueline E. Dixon, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His extensive experience in directing and acting as well as his educational expertise in theatre conservatory programs will help enhance our already exceptional theatre arts program and Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.”