The roles they play

By Mary Rose Fissinger

Adam Howard ’93 walks into his seventh period Creative Writing class with circles under his eyes and gripping his coffee mug decorated with drawings of famous authors. At 1:10 p.m., he is still showing signs of sleep deprivation, but it is not from pulling an all-nighter grading papers.

“You’ll get your poems back on Monday, after tech week,” Howard assures his students.

He is referring to the final week of rehearsals before the opening night of the play he is starring in, “Private Eyes.” For the last few weeks, he has been working nonstop. Four to five days a week he followed up his long day of teaching with a three-hour rehearsal, and he still had to fit in time to make lesson plans and grade papers.

“You have to become more disciplined with time,” Howard said with a smile.

His two professions, actor and teacher, were born out of each other. When he was getting his Master of Fine Arts at Texas University, part of the curriculum involved teaching drama classes. This struck a chord, and in 2003 he returned to the middle school to teach acting. After three years, he moved to the Upper School as an English teacher, after his appreciation for literature grew through his experience in drama and in life. Having double majored at Kenyon in Theater and English, the switch was not too drastic. Howard also uses his theater background in his teaching.

“I’ve always loved storytelling, and I think I bring that to the classroom,” Howard said.

Howard is not the only one whose professional life is a fusion of acting and teaching. Michele Spears, who teaches The Actor and The Stage, spends her mornings going to auditions, her afternoons teaching and directing the annual musical, and her nights rehearsing for the upcoming production put on by her improvisation troupe, Impro Theater. She’s been involved with Impro since 1992, after spending a year with a different improvisation troupe, LA Connection, which she joined soon after moving to Los Angeles from New York.

Impro Theater puts on entire plays of improvisation in the style of great authors such as Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, and even Jane Austen. This style of improv is called long-form improvisation. Their current production, which opened on October 9, is entitled “Sondheim Unscripted.” Because it is all improvisation, the show will be completely different on any given night.

The closing night of this play will not bring much rest to Spears, however. The improvisation company meets every Monday to do acting drills and keep their skills sharp.

Not that Spears has to worry about too much time away from acting; she continues to go on auditions, and she is director of the Scene Monkeys as well as the fall musical “City of Angels.” In addition, she directs and choreographs for a musical theater guild in Los Angeles, the Academy for New Musical Theater. The members of this guild work on writing and choreographing new musicals.

“I direct for them and help new musicals find their life,” Spears said.

You could say the same about her students. A group of students that Spears directed as Scene Monkeys went on to start their own improvisation group, One Night Stand, after they graduated in 2003. The group is still in existence and has a show opening soon in New York.

Teaching, however, serves more as a blessing than an extra burden for Spears.

“I get to work with students for whom it’s still so exciting and fresh,” Spears said. “This is why I love what I do. It’s a nice balance to the whole game of Hollywood.”

It also means she has her entire summer to focus on acting. In addition, she is a “3/5” teacher, meaning she only has two classes and is not usually on campus until about 6th period, and, if a rehearsal or audition still conflicts, the department is really understanding, she said. Other teachers take over her classes if she can’t make them; and they are all very supportive. However, she admits, “it makes for long days.”

Both Spears and Howard know how much teachers can inspire and help careers.

Howard has been acting ever since elementary school, but really came to love it when he was an eleventh grader at Harvard-Westlake, and Ted Walch came in as the head of theater. Walch cast Howard as Demetrius in the school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“And then I just got the bug,” Howard said.

Walch proved helpful to Spears as well. When she first moved to Los Angeles, she enrolled in an acting class he taught. He had seen a movie she had choreographed, and he asked her to choreograph that year’s musical at Harvard-Westlake. After that, she helped out with the musical every year until two years ago, when she was given the job of teaching The Actor and The Stage.

Neither Howard nor Spears would give up either aspect of their professional life. Sometimes these two sides of them collide when their students show up at their shows.

“I love to see students [at my shows],” Howard said, although he admits that he doesn’t feel like the school is the right place to market his performances.

Students in the audience or not, he lives for acting.

“Nothing beats the rush and the jitters of the night at the theater,” Howard said.