The THEATER TEACHER
BY KERRY FIRTH
Right-brain people are creative. Left-brain people are analytical. But the person who has both sides of the brain functioning equally to complement each other is someone exceptional because that combination begets a highly artistic, systematic individual who’s innovative and pragmatic.
Such is the case with Michael Naffziger, theater and technical director for the Schumann School for the Visual and Performing Arts at Indian River Charter High School. For the past decade, Naffziger has taught acting, drama, musical theater, stagecraft and comprehensive theater at the school, but he actually got a degree in science in college and at one-time taught physics.
“As a child I was fascinated by science and biology,” said Naffziger. “It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school that I became interested in acting.” He and his twin brother attended an all-boys school while their sister was enrolled in an all-girls school. Whenever their sister’s school had a play to perform, her teachers would ask the boys to audition for the male parts. He auditioned for Hello, Dolly and once he stepped on that stage he fell in love with acting.
Still, he pursued his interest in science, while simultaneously studying theatre, at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in theater/science.
“After college I was looking for a job in science and when I couldn’t find work right away, I taught an acting workshop,” he explained. “After about two or three days of teaching I decided I wanted to be a teacher and I’ve been teaching ever since.”
He went on to get a master’s degree from Cleveland State University. He taught, he acted and tried his hand at various other occupations, including diamond brokering and owning a chain of hair salons in California. He was the director/producer at a California theatre when hard times hit the nation in 2008. “I had a wife and two children and it was tough to make a go of it in California. I was also missing the fulfillment I got from teaching so I put resumes out around the country for teaching positions.”
As fate would have it, thinking he was still in California, Cynthia Trevino-Aversa, director of Indian River Charter School, called and asked if a Skype interview could be set up. “I told her I was in Florida for the week and she asked where I was,” said Naffziger. “I told her I had just gotten off of I-95 at SR 60 and was about to go back over to my sister’s house in Tampa. She said I was only 10 minutes away from the school, so I turned around and went straight over for an interview. When I met Cynthia and learned that she had a theatrical background and found out that the school’s focus was performing arts, I was intrigued.
“But it was when I walked into the theater room that I knew something special drew me here and it was meant to be. The theatre was nearly an exact replica of a theatre I owned in California and it was so familiar and comfortable that it literally felt like home. The next day she offered me the job, I accepted, then went back to California to pack up my family.”
Moving the family to Florida wasn’t a bed of roses at first. “My daughter had never felt humidity and didn’t understand why her skin was wet,” he chuckled. “And my wife had never been exposed to mosquitoes and was quickly covered in bites. But we adapted to the climate and fell in love with the school and with the small town of Vero Beach.”
When Naffziger started at IRCS there were nine students in the theater program. Today there are 200 students with the performing arts curriculum split into three facets: musical theater, technical theater and acting. “The performing arts program at this school is totally immersive,” he said. “Freshmen get vocal training, and sophomores learn the basics of ballet. They also learn about acting, set designing, make-up, hair, costume design and technical sound and lighting. Learning all the techniques behind the art is more important than the performance itself because we send our students all over the country for their secondary education. Our students have studied in the top performance arts schools in the nation, including the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the American Musical, the [Drama] Academy in New York and the Savannah College of Art and Design.”
Of course, many choose to stay close to home and attend Indian River State College. “They have an awesome theater program and the students get more stage time than they would at a larger state school,” he said. “Plus, nearly all of our students get full scholarships making it affordable for all.”
Naffziger’s unorthodox manner of teaching is legendary with his students. “For the first three months all we do is destroy our inhibitions,” he said. “I call it an introduction to being human. These kids are exposed to so much peer pressure and self-loathing in middle school that we have to silence those voices in their heads that say they’re too stupid, or too fat, or too different. We literally embarrass each other so much that they don’t care what people think about them. The fact is that they can’t try on another character until they are comfortable in their own bodies. It’s the most important class I teach.”
Tapping into his endless reserve of energy, Naffziger typically juggles three productions at any given time and still finds the time to take his students off campus to perform around the community. “Giving the kids an opportunity to perform before a live audience is invaluable,” he explained. “We perform at fundraisers, galas, nursing homes and at nearly every school in the county. Our students have been on stage at the Theatre Guild and the old Downtown Theatre as well as at festivals throughout Florida.”
All of the actors in the theatre program are members of an organization called Florida Thespians, the largest high school theatre organization in the world, with more than 10,000 members. Students perform at district festivals throughout Florida and then move up to the Florida State Thespian festival held in Tampa. Each year, six schools are invited to be the nightly entertainment and IRCS has been selected for that honor six times out of the past seven years. Naffziger takes his entire cast, production crew and props across the state to perform in a professional theatre. This year they will put on two performances of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Tampa Theatre on March 20.
Four or five years ago community leaders, educators and students rallied together to submit Naffziger’s name to the Tony Awards committee for nominee selection. “I was honored to be nominated for a Tony Award for Excellence in theater education,” he said. “In all my years of acting I never got close to a Tony but now that I’ve become a teacher I get nominated. I didn’t win the Tony but garnering the support of the community and the respect of my students is the greatest award of all.”
Naffziger’s greatest joy comes from the love of his family and the respect and admiration of his students. Many refer to him as their second father or role model and credit him with changing their lives. Student Charlotte Nafe summed up her heartfelt thoughts eloquently. “The lessons I have learned from Mr. N are innumerable. He has not only taught me many things about acting and performing, but also how to be a better person. He enhances every situation with his humor and encouraging nature. I have no idea where I’d be without him.”
Lives in: Vero Beach
School: Indian River Charter School
Family: Wife, Lindsey; daughter, Alyzsa, 13; son, Jagger
Education: Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, bachelor of arts; Cleveland State University, master’s in education; University of Northern Colorado, theatre studies
Background: Been in the production business for more than 20 years as a designer, director, teacher, actor, technician, consultant and artist. Owns a production company called East Coast Encore.
How I got into teaching: “I couldn’t find a job in science so I taught a summer acting class. I was hooked.”
What I like best about teaching: “I love watching a child grow into the best human being they can be.”
Something my students don’t know about me: “I am always worried about letting them down.”