Special/Signature Issues » Top 40 Under 40

Desirée Dabney, 30

Head of musical theatre and assistant professor, VCUarts; executive director, Theatre Diva Productions


When Style profiled Desirée Dabney last year, she was broadening out from her job as a middle school arts teacher to take a more activist role making structural changes in education. Soon after, she was handed a prime opportunity to have a direct impact.

“I got an email from VCU over the summer [of 2022] and it was a shocking email,” says Dabney. She was offered a faculty position and started in August as the head of musical theatre. “My goal was always to change programs, increase diversity and inclusion especially in higher education. When the opportunity was with VCU, I was like, ‘OK, yeah!’”

The actor, director, and professor has been going full-speed ever since, augmenting her new administrative and educational duties with directing gigs at several local companies. She directed three different casts of youngsters for “Annie Jr.” at Cadence for the holidays, went from that to an astounding “How Black Mothers Say I Love You” at Richmond Triangle Players (RTP), to “She Persisted” at Virginia Rep, then “Rent” in April, her directing debut at VCUarts Theatre.

“I did the math and I’ve been in rehearsals for eight straight months,” says Dabney. “I was feeling extremely tired and I’m never tired. Then I figured out, ‘Oh, this is why.’ But I would do it again in a heartbeat.” Adding to her responsibilities has been work on the executive board for “Yes, And!” theater company and the artistic committee for RTP.

Dabney says her work now has many fundamental similarities to her previous job. “Middle schoolers and college students are both in a transitional age where they are figuring out who they are,” she says. “So reaching them is about establishing a human connection and building trust. I don’t bring [VCU students] juice boxes and Takis, but we may go to the Chili’s and talk about life.”

She’s found that reverberations from the pandemic continue in her new job.

“A lot of these students jumped from junior year in high school straight into college, at least socially, and that’s huge,” Dabney says. “We’re figuring out how to give them what they need and half of it is backtracking a little because they have missed so much core stuff. We’ve had to accept that and keep on moving.”