Local theater teachers sharpen their skills and satisfy their souls by quite literally acting the parts on stages throughout Central Florida
Seminole County’s high-school theater instructors spend most of their time putting their students center stage. The hardworking teachers turn the spotlight on their pupils during classroom lessons, after school during show rehearsals, and when the curtain rises on school plays and musicals. But occasionally, these dedicated instructors carve out time to tread the boards themselves in professional and community theater shows across Central Florida. The teachers, who often perform for little or no pay, do so because acting is like breathing to them.
“It truly is for the love of it,” says Trevor Southworth, who teaches theater at Lake Mary High School. “We always say this scratches an itch, but it’s good for our souls.”
Staying active in the local performing arts scene also benefits the teachers’ students and school drama departments. The educators are able to network with other theater professionals and stay up-to-date on trends, such as technical advances in sound and lighting. And, keeping their own acting skills sharp means they’re able to give better advice on everything from auditioning to creating believable characters.
James Brendlinger, who was Lake Howell High School’s theater director for 21 years, says teachers are popping up in area shows with greater frequency. He attributes that to the proliferation of small, local theaters and major events such as the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, all of which create more acting opportunities.
This year James opened his own theater, Penguin Point Productions at the Oviedo Mall, and two of Seminole County’s theater instructors have already appeared in shows there.
“I think teachers are seeing you can still live that performing dream and teach,” James says.
When Jamaal Solomon’s students watch him perform in local shows, it’s often an aha moment for the budding young thespians.
“It reinforces the things I teach them in class when they see something translated onto the stage,” says Jamaal, theater director at Hagerty High School. “They’re like, ‘Oh, now it makes sense.’ Also, it lets them see that I’m a real person, that I know what I’m talking about, and that you can do theater as a profession or you can do it for fun and still have another profession.”
Jamaal has performed at Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, Gateway Center for the Arts in DeBary, and the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center in Sanford, to name a few venues. He has been a member of Central Florida Community Arts (CFCArts) since its founding. And, he regularly directs shows for Wekiva River Players Junior Theatre.
An Air Force veteran, Jamaal is a graduate of Kaplan University, now Purdue University Global. Before coming to Hagerty, he taught at a middle school in Orange County.
Jamaal’s upcoming performances include singing in the CFCArts holiday and spring concerts at Northland Church in Longwood. And in May, he will portray the Cat in the Hat in Gateway’s production of Seussical the Musical.
“Performing is a part of who I am, and it fulfills my spirit,” Jamaal says. “My wife says if I didn’t do it, she wouldn’t know who I was.”
Tiffany Ortiz used to feel wistful when huddling with her theater students before the curtain went up on their shows. She had been a theater kid at her alma mater, Lake Howell High School, and Tiffany was involved in theater at the University of Central Florida, where she majored in education. She began teaching English and yearbook at Seminole High School right out of college and transitioned into being the theater director there.
“The more and more I taught, the more and more I missed acting,” says Tiffany, who is now Lake Howell’s theater director. “The kids are the ones who actually encouraged me to go back and do theater.”
This year, Tiffany performed in two staples of classic theater, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Glass Menagerie. Both plays were staged at Penguin Point Productions in Oviedo. James Brendlinger, the aforementioned owner of Penguin Point, was Tiffany’s theater director back when she was a student at Lake Howell.
She has also performed at Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, Gateway Center for the Arts in DeBary, and Shoestring Theatre in Lake Helen.
“You have to practice your craft to teach it,” Tiffany says. “I think that’s important. When our students see us practicing our craft and feeding our souls, they feel more welcome and able to do it themselves.”
Trevor and Becca Southworth are passionate about acting, but the husband-and-wife theater teachers and parents of two little girls are also very choosy about the roles they play.
“We are both full-time teachers and full-time parents, so we have to be picky,” says Becca, Lake Mary High School’s theater director. “We select shows that are on our bucket lists, ones we’ve always wanted to do.”
Sometimes, though, things don’t go according to the Southworths’ carefully-laid-out plans. Trevor, who also teaches theater at Lake Mary High, had to unexpectedly jump into a huge role this past summer. Trevor was directing The Producers at Athens Theatre in DeLand, where he is a resident director. Days before the show was set to open, one of the leading men had a heart attack and couldn’t continue in the role.
In the spirit of the show must go on, Trevor quickly transformed himself into Max Bialystock, the down-and-out producer played by Zero Mostel in the movie version and Nathan Lane on Broadway.
“I truly never saw myself doing that part,” says Trevor, who was previously the theater director at Hagerty High School. “But, we had paying customers who were coming, and I was really the only one who could fill the spot.”
Less than a month after The Producers closed, it was Becca’s turn to shine. She starred in the emotionally-wrenching musical Next to Normal at Central Florida Community Arts (CFCArts).
Between the two of them, the Southworths have also performed with Orlando Rep, Winter Park Playhouse, Thank You Five in Port Orange, and Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando. Both Becca and Trevor majored in theater in college and performed professionally for years in New York City.
In the classroom, the Southworths make it a point to share their onstage experiences with their students.
“To give them real examples from real productions is key,” Becca says. “I don’t want to become out of practice or old hat.”
And their students get a kick out of seeing Becca and Trevor wowing audiences on local stages.
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“It’s wonderful just hearing them say at the end of the show, ‘That’s my teacher!’” Becca says. “It warms my heart.”
Until spring of 2018, Susan Gerdeman hadn’t done any serious acting for about two decades.
Then, an out-of-the blue invitation to play one of her dream roles lured Lyman High School’s theater director back into the spotlight.
A director friend asked Susan to star in A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Thank You Five in Port Orange. The play, a sequel to the Ibsen classic A Doll’s House, was written by a Lyman graduate.
“It was a kismet kind of thing,” Susan says of finally getting to portray Nora, the central character of both plays. “If any of my students were offered an opportunity like this, I’d be upset if they said no.”
So, Susan said yes to the long-desired role. This past spring, she also starred in the play Other Desert Cities, presented by The Ensemble Company at Penguin Point Productions.
Susan, who majored in theater at Florida State University, worked as an actress for a couple of years before discovering her knack for teaching. Prior to Lyman, she taught youth theater at Winter Park Playhouse and at a private academy in Winter Park.
“In some ways, I’d been avoiding getting on stage again because I’d gotten real comfortable being on the director’s side and designing sets,” Susan says. “Being able to go out and continue developing professionally as an actor has been really valuable for me. It’s been super freeing. I just showed up with my script and played.”
Francine Barnhill encourages her pupils to get involved with community theater groups whenever they can, and she makes sure to follow her own advice.
“I tell them the best thing is to volunteer and learn,” says Francine, Seminole High School’s theater director. “Anything I can do in the theater outside of school just enhances the skill set that I can bring to the students.”
A University of Central Florida graduate, Francine took over Seminole’s theater department midway through the 2018-19 school year. Before that, she taught hospitality and tourism management at Winter Springs High School, where she was also the yearbook adviser and head cheer coach.
Francine has a background in ballet and musical theater and has performed frequently at the Sonnentag Theatre at the IceHouse in Mount Dora and the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center in Sanford. In addition to acting, she has choreographed and stage managed many shows.
About 10 years ago, Francine began gravitating more toward plays than musicals because of a thyroid problem that affected her vocal chords. She still does the occasional musical, though. Her most recent shows have included the musical Sweet Charity and the madcap farces Don’t Dress For Dinner and Funny Money.
Francine also dabbles in stand-up comedy and performed at a couple of comedy venues this past summer.
“Really, stand-up feels like a daily thing when teaching school,” she quips. “I love my job and have a lot of fun doing it.”