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It's impossible to think of Webster's Conservatory of Theatre Arts without also thinking of Peter Sargent—the program's founder and likely its most fierce advocate. Since its beginnings 50 years ago, he's seen the Conservatory evolve—from curriculum changes to theatre space expansions to collaborations with professional companies. But most importantly, he's seen it thrive. Yet Sargent refuses to take full responsibility for it all, attributing it equally to his colleagues whose abilities to be both professors and working professionals is something he sees as mandatory for the success of a program of this caliber. From 1967 to the present, the Conservatory of Theatre Arts has set the standard for what theatre training should be. And it's still setting the stage for what is yet to come.  

All photos copyright Webster University

Peter Sargent

Peter Sargent is more than just the plaid.

He is also more than just the Dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, or The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ most tenured resident lighting designer.

Sargent is an omnipresent figure at Webster who teaches every semester, auditions nearly every incoming freshman, and cannot go unmentioned when it comes to recounting the 50 years of rich history he’s helped create at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts.

But, of course, there is also the plaid. The tendency toward the colorful pattern known as “Madras” has its origins in New England, just north of Boston, where Sargent grew up. The plaid, he says, at one point became such an iconic identifier for him that the absence of it became more of a discussion topic than its presence.

Sargent earned his BFA in stage management from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1959 and his MFA at Yale University in 1963. He taught in Florida and Pennsylvania and was a consultant during the construction of the Loretto-Hilton Theatre before it opened in 1966. Little did he know he’d one day end up using it as his classroom.

“Webster Conservatory was a wealth of opportunity for me coming from a small town in Michigan. Suddenly I was thrust into a community of talented artists who dreamed and schemed as I did. The conservatory and the teachers provided me with all the tools I needed to make my next steps in New York and on Broadway. It was just the beginning of a dance I am still creating.”

– Jerry Mitchell, Conservatory Alum and 2-time Tony Award winner for "La Cage Aux Folles" (2005), and "Kinky Boots" (2013)

Sargent was hired by Webster College in 1966 as an assistant professor, technical director, and lighting designer. The following year he founded the Conservatory of Theatre Arts with a team of fellow professors.

“When we came up with the word ‘Conservatory,’” Sargent remembers, “we weren’t quite sure what it meant.”

They modeled the program in terms of the training sequence at Carnegie and Yale, which meant creating a focused and rigorous schedule to prepare students for the competitive world of theatre. The program featured classes like acting, movement, drafting, and scene design—all of which are still at the core of the curriculum today.

“Peter is the architect of much of what makes the Conservatory great. He has been a steady caretaker of the program for half a century with the foresight to encourage growth for the next 50 years. He has left an indelible mark on Webster.

– Doug Finlayson, Head of the Conservatory’s Directing Program

Sargent is often pegged as what he calls the “figurehead” of the Conservatory’s birth, but he wants it known that it was truly a team effort. And it still is, he says.

One of the many compliments he gives the staff at the Conservatory is that they’re all still professionals—those who teach directing are still working directors, and those who teach acting are still working actors.

“In the arts, if we aren’t doing what we are pontificating, then what are we pontificating?” he says. “For faculty, we want people who still strive to do what their talent is.”

Scott Hanson, now a performing arts teacher who attended the Conservatory in the late 1970s, appreciates that approach, and notes that he still gets inspiration and advice from Peter to this day, some 40 years later.

“I thought, here is a professional who is an administrator, teaches in classrooms and is still up in the cat walks designing lights for theater and operas…. What a guy!“

–Scott Hanson, Conservatory Alum and Performing Arts Teacher at The College School

“A couple of years ago I mentioned how uncertain I was about an upcoming student production. His eyes sparkled with delight and he said, ‘Isn’t it great to not know! Isn’t it wonderful!’” Hanson recalls. “His perspective is infectious. He passes it on every way you look at it and inspires me to do the same.”

After having spent over 50 years at Webster, and having seen the Conservatory evolve and flourish, there’s no telling when Sargent will be done making his mark on one of the best theatre programs in the country.

“We do strive to be the best,” Sargent says, “and where we are right now—this level of excellence—will continue for a long time.”

Check out a timeline of notable events in the history of the Webster Conservatory.


Conservatory Timeline