Exciting things are percolating over at South Pasadena High School Drama department with new drama director and teacher, Nick Hoffa. We sat down with Hoffa to talk about his vision for the department and what influenced his acting and teaching style.
A self-described East Coaster at heart, Hoffa was raised in the college town of Amherst, Massachussetts and comes from a family full of educators, however being an educator was not on his radar until very recently. When asked how his East Coast background may have infused his teaching style, Hoffa says, “I very much look at theatre and art as a skill you can learn if you apply yourself, so I think there’s a sort of East Coast kind of work ethic to just ‘get to it’ and I’ve always brought my sense of how you practice to acting. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing where you get struck in the head with a lightning bolt and you’re waiting for divine inspiration; good acting comes as a result of improving upon a collection of skills.” He explains, “they’re weird skills because it’s harder than playing a scale on a piano. You have to find out what those skills are but once you narrow down what they are, you practice them and get better, and then, the more comfortable you feel at those skills the better you become as an actor. I think that’s directly related to a sort of East Coast work ethic, not that West Coast doesn’t have a work ethic(!) but just there’s kind of like a Calvinist, New England work ethic thing!”
He was not exactly a drama kid in school. He was the athlete who was in musicals (Finn in Glee anyone?) but moved away from theatre in college, although he still sang in a cappella groups while continuing to play football. It wasn’t until he graduated from the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University that Hoffa realized he missed having a “performance fix” and says he hadn’t realized how important it really was to him. “I think I thought I was going to be a Mayor of a small town. I thought that would be interesting, but truthfully all the people in my program were so much smarter than me and as I started working in public policy I just missed performing.”
His college sweetheart, and now lovely wife Meredith, was moving to San Francisco so Hoffa Googled “acting in San Francisco” which eventually led him to American Conservatory Theatre where he ended up training and he says, “it changed my life.” He worked as an actor in San Francisco doing as many “stupid, naked plays” as possible, took more classes, ran a childrens’ theatre company, worked as a singing waiter, living an actor’s life. He always says he learned how to be an actor in San Francisco and learned how to have a career in Los Angeles.
The actor’s life continued in Los Angeles where Hoffa worked in theatre and television landing roles, funnily enough given his sunny disposition, often as bad guys. He worked consistently but he definitely felt his casting “look” didn’t really align necessarily with his acting strengths. Throughout his acting years, he always directed things, “I found myself loving helping other people tell stories,” explains Hoffa, “I got it, I had a lot of ideas for it, it really excited me and in some ways I found it more creatively interesting than acting, which I really love, but I’m not sure it fulfills me in the way that teaching and directing does.”
Teaching for Hoffa is a direct outgrowth of directing. He had become frustrated with the way people talked about acting. “I loved acting but it’s an art form that gets very easily full of clichés and starts to lose meaning. The conversation about acting so often was not my experience, so I started a podcast.” The podcast opened him up to loving to hear what other actors’ process was and he finds that acting is a very individual artform because in order to be good at it you have to know how you work, and he was able to interview people who work all the time. The podcast coincided with Hoffa starting to teach professional classes and founding Wheelhouse Acting, where he continues to teach professionals along with a class geared more towards writers and directors called Acting for Non-Actors.
As Hoffa and his wife began looking for good schools in the area for their daughter, he stumbled on the notice that SPHS had put out for an acting teacher, so he says it was pure luck although some would argue it may have been fate. Hoffa says that one of the things he loves about working with high school kids is that for him and his peers, the work they did in high school and college remains among the most special artistic experiences of their lives. “That’s when the seed gets planted,” says Hoffa, “I didn’t think I was going to be a high school teacher but once I thought about it like that, I thought that’s a pretty incredible, exciting place to work with a certain kind of people and I’m thrilled to have that be where my focus is.” He goes on to say, “at a minimum what I’m interested in is that every person in front of me understands there are so many life skills you can learn in drama. You learn about yourself, you learn how to work with others, how to stand up for yourself, to speak from your heart. You learn what it is to connect with people. There’s no limit to the amount of things you can learn. And for those who think they want to pursue it as a career, we can have a conversation about what the next steps are for you.” To that end, Hoffa is keen to bring in other industry professionals to work with the students on a regular basis.
Observing his class or watching him warm up his actors before a recent performance, it is clear his students respect and adore him. They are fully engaged and couldn’t be more excited about the work and all the performing opportunities; among them are scene nights presented each semester, storytelling performances at Calvary Pre-school and Marengo Elementary, a fall play, the Fullerton Theatre Festival competition and the spring musical.
Hoffa recently staged a dramatic reveal of the two productions this year, building excitement as the students tried their best to trip him up in the weeks leading up to the reveal. We streamed it live on Facebook and suffice it to say, the kids were beyond thrilled. Below find the full video.
The fall play will run the first two weekends in December with performances on Friday Dec. 1st & 8th, Saturday Dec. 2nd & 9th and one Sunday matinee Dec. 3rd. The play is ALMOST, MAINE, one of the most popular plays done in colleges, high schools and small theatres across the country. Hoffa chose it because it really focuses on the acting and he says, “I think they will have the opportunity to do the best acting of their lives. It is hilarious, it is sad, heartbreaking; it’s sort of a romantic comedy but in the best way. It’s people who are full of pain and longing who end up falling in love and it’s beautiful when it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. The audience is going to love it.”
The Spring Musical is, drum roll please, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, a raucous, hilarious, crazy fun show that Hoffa hopes the entire community will come out to enjoy. Says Hoffa, “I wanted to do something contemporary and really fun that the kids could dive into with so much energy, enthusiasm and excitement. It’s a really funny show, the songs are great, it has a big chorus and a lot of leads, the costumes, make-up and dancing; just really, really FUN!” (Mark your calendars April 20-22!)
I want people to come to drama shows and think “those people look like they are having the absolute best time and they, to use a football term, are just leaving it all out there”; that it be a fully enriching, enlivening experience that people leave going, “WOW!”
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