I haven’t acted in a play since 1973, when I was cast as Sid Davis, the proverbial drunken uncle, in a Winter Park High School production of Ah, Wilderness! That production was notable mainly because it starred Tom Nowicki, who went on to enjoy a solid career in movies and television.
The Eugene O’Neil coming-of-age drama was directed by the late Ann Derflinger, the tiny but terrifying performing arts teacher for whom the school’s auditorium is named. Ah, Derf! I still dream, now and then, that I’m in a play she’s directing and have neglected to learn my lines, or to even discern what the plot is so I can improvise.
Yet, I can honestly say that pretty much everything important I learned in high school, I learned from her. I think Tom would tell you the same thing about himself. As would actor and author Stephen DeWoody, who talks about this “force of nature” on page 8.
Amanda Bearse heartily concurs. You may remember Amanda, who is today primarily a director, from the raunchy sitcom Married With Children, in which she played wacky neighbor Marcy D’Arcy. But if you’ve lived in Winter Park long enough, you may also remember her from local theatrical productions and various star turns on the WPHS stage.
“She was such a powerful presence,” says Amanda from her home in Seattle. “To her, the theater was a place to create and explore, but it wasn’t playtime. She took it seriously and she demanded — commanded — you to take it seriously, too.”
Amanda still cites Derf as the biggest influence on her life and career, as much for her ferocious work ethic as her depth of knowledge about the craft of acting. A compliment or an acknowledgement from this notorious perfectionist, she says, was all she needed to push herself harder and farther than she thought possible.
“When you had her attention, when she engaged with you, that was the richest experience possible,” she says. “Those moments have stayed with me my entire life.”
Derf recognized something special in Amanda, who could have graduated after her junior year but stayed for her senior year just so she could play the lead in The Diary of Ann Frank under Derf’s direction.
She also praises Derf for her egalitarian approach; she was equally tough on everybody, and maybe even tougher on uber-talented kids like Amanda, who in Derf’s world passed for a teacher’s pet. “Plus, she made the theater a safe place, where kids who were a little different found sanctuary,” says Amanda, who announced that she was gay 20 years ago.
There are plenty of Derf’s acolytes out in the world today. Some, like Amanda, became actors. Most of us, though, got real jobs, and are better at whatever we do as a result of her example. Still, whenever I hear some idiot talk about what a waste of precious resources arts education is, and how it has no practical value, I can only think: “That person never took a class with Derf.”