As theater teacher and director at Fairfax High, Erich DiCenzo is exactly where he wants to be.
"I have a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater and dance and was a professional actor for eight years, so this is a second career," he said. "I knew I wanted to perform forever, but not make it my living."
DiCenzo acted with some of the most highly regarded theater companies throughout the U.S. And for all of 2010, he was a singer-dancer on a world cruise exploring 68 countries. But he wanted to do more with his life and talents.
"I was always drawn to teaching and wanted to blend both worlds," he explained. "I hoped to take my experience and share it with youth."
So in September, DiCenzo, 29, began doing just that at Fairfax, and his style and enthusiasm proved a hit with the students and reinvigorated the theater program there.
"I talk to the kids as one actor to another," he said. "We discuss the characters they’re playing, in depth, so they can discover the motivations that lie within. It’s all about the process; and the students are learning that, if they take the time with it, then their product will be 100 times better."
DICENZO’S FIRST PRODUCTION at Fairfax was last month’s "Almost, Maine," and the audience loved it. But the preparation for the show’s success began long before the actors stepped onto the stage.
"Because they know I have such high standards and expectations of them, they were off-book [acting without their scripts], the second rehearsal," he said. "Then we were able to have fun, play and truly dissect the show."
And DiCenzo was pleased with how his students responded, "creating real moments onstage," and wants to continue "bringing that relevance and freshness to them."
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he started acting in middle school and immediately connected with theater’s social aspect. "I liked theater people," he said. "They’re a good group of people having fun just being together." And, said DiCenzo, it’s also valuable for teenagers to have that kind of support system in their lives.
"The skills high-school kids learn today, and the support they get from the other kids in theater, is more beneficial than they realize," he said. "My students feel that this is their family and their oasis. It’s a safe place where they won’t get picked on and judged, as well as a place where they can take risks and gain strength through their vulnerabilities."
This year, said DiCenzo, as a first-year teacher and an instructor new to Fairfax, his philosophy is to address everything under a professional umbrella. "So I’m running this as a professional theater company would run," he said. "I’m teaching students the social aspect of theater and how to behave as a professional actor and communicate – skills they can use in real life."
"The fun is in the work and in trying new things," he continued. "Whether my students want to be Broadway stars or go into business, they’ll always have to be able to express themselves socially."
DiCenzo’s ultimate goal, he said, is "to build this program to be the best it can be. We have the Academy, and Mike Replogle, who directs the Professional Musical Theatre and Actor’s Studio, is fantastic. And what’s exciting is that he and I both have practical experience auditioning and not getting the part and auditioning again and again until we did."
This experience and credibility, said DiCenzo, "transfers when you teach it. So I want to work closely with Mike to blend our experience together to make Fairfax the place to be for students in the performing arts."
He also hopes to do likewise with Academy dance teacher Andrea Heininge. "She has the practical experience, too," said DiCenzo. "We both went to Point Park University in Pittsburgh – a conservatory for performing arts. She was a dance major and I was a musical-theater major. We didn’t know each other then; but here, we really clicked."
So at Fairfax High, he said, "I’ve been welcomed by like-minded people and visions that match my own. And I really believe that, together, we can take this program to unforeseen places."
BESIDES DIRECTING the school plays, DiCenzo also teaches film study, theater and technical theater. And he couldn’t be happier.
"I’d love to end my career here, never having left," he said. "I feel like I hit the lottery at Fairfax – it’s beyond what I ever imagined. When I thought of my ideal situation, this was it. And with the talent of the kids, amazing facilities, camaraderie of the creative team here and supportive administration that allows us to take risks on sometimes edgy material, the possibilities are endless."