Force of Nature

By Stephen DeWoody

Ann Derflinger demanded your best — and you gave it.

One of the many things I learned from Ann Derflinger was an earnest appreciation of theatrical superstitions. You’ve probably heard that we should say “break a leg” to an actor before a show, especially on opening night, but never “good luck.”

All drama teachers pass that along. But did you know that we should never whistle in the dressing room? Never speak the name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” aloud in the theater? And never, ever wear, or even have, peacock feathers onstage?

I knew Ann Derflinger for more than 15 years. She was my drama teacher at Glenridge Junior High and again at Winter Park High School.

While I was working toward my degree in Theater Education at Rollins College, she sponsored me as a student teacher. We finally became colleagues in the late ‘70s when I began my own teaching career.

I don’t honestly know if Derf actually believed all these things —and I’ve only brushed the surface; there was a whole bell-book-and-candle catalogue of superstitions she taught us — but I’ll tell you this: we believed her.

Of course, before Ann Derflinger was a renowned drama teacher/director, she was a very skilled actress. For all I know, “Superstitious Derfie” may well have been a role she enjoyed playing.

Although she was notoriously tone deaf, Ann toured as Mammy Yokum in the musical L’il Abner. I’ve seen the pictures, and I’m sorry I never saw her in the role.

She was also an accomplished costumer, stage manager, technical director and more. She had studied at Rollins; had worked on Broadway. She knew her craft. And she believed in teaching us every aspect of “theatre,” with no tolerance at all for effete pretenders who refused to get their hands dirty.

Miss Derflinger, as we all called her until we earned the privilege of calling her “Derf,” was less than five feet tall and may once have weighed 100 pounds, though I doubt it.

And was one of the most awe-inspiring people I have ever known. She was not warm and fuzzy; she was as apt to call us “Thing” as any version of our actual names. On at least one occasion, she compared my acting ability — unfavorably, of course — to that of her cat, the notorious Tartuffe. Her idea of high praise? “Not bad.”

None of the current trend of lavish praise for mediocre effort for Derf. She expected our best effort. Like a good sports coach, she pushed us, and we all understood that a “not bad” from her was worth a dozen attaboys from anyone else. We could bask in the warmth of one “that wasn’t too embarrassing” for weeks.

Woe to us if we got cocky, though. When we were auditioning for The Crucible during my senior year, I apparently strutted around as if I knew I was getting the lead. Heck, everybody knew I was getting the lead.

Well, Derf approved of confidence. Arrogance, not so much. She put me through three callbacks. She pushed me; she insulted me; she questioned my commitment. Finally, she cast me. But I had learned my lesson.

When Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel featured my old friend Tom Nowicki in an article a couple of years ago, he wrote, “Like generations of local actors, he first learned his trade from the late Ann Derflinger, the famed Winter Park High School drama teacher.” He went on to cite Tom’s college education at Yale and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, but notice who was singled out for a personal mention.

“Generations” may be stretching the point a bit — Ann taught from the late ’60s until her final bout with cancer in 1983; only about 15 years. But her legacy is much, much larger than that. She died 30 years ago, but she still looms large in the memories of her students.

Besides Mr. Nowicki — who has enjoyed an impressive career on stage, movies, and TV — some other notable Derflinger alumni include TV actress/director Amanda Bearse, Broadway star Davis Gaines and local theater favorite Rick Stanley. All of us give first and best credit to Derf for setting us on a balanced path in the unstable world of show business.

Some of us even became teachers. Through a convoluted series of events, I found myself attempting to fill her shoes — which would be some trick in opposite directions, figuratively or literally! — at Winter Park High for three years, from 2003 to 2006.

Standing on that same stage I had first trod when it was brand-new was a bit surreal. I don’t mean this in any spooky way, but during my brief sojourn as drama director at WPHS, I was constantly aware of her presence.

And the kids surprised me by wanting to know what Miss Derflinger was like. Her name was on the building, but who was she, really? Some had heard their teachers, and in a few cases their parents, speak in reverent tones of this pint-sized force of nature who had become something of a local legend in theatrical circles.

Ultimately, I told them that she was every bit as formidable as they’d been told. But the greatest lesson she had taught me — and, believe me, I tried very hard to pass this on — was simple:

Strive. Expect more from yourself. Hone your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. “Act well your part; there all honor lies.” When you stride out on stage, believe in your words, and project them so the deaf old lady in the back row can hear you.

Maybe it stuck with some of them. Here’s something: at the end of my first year as director, the officers of Thespian Troupe 850 started working on ballots for their annual awards programs. I asked, “What do you call these awards?”

After some discussion of the lame nicknames they’d tried in the past, a student named Emily, knowing that I had once been a member of this very same troupe, asked, “What did you call them back in the day?”

“Derfies.” And Derfies it was, for those few years at least. I hope they still honor her in this small way. I sincerely hope that a part of any refurbishing of the auditorium that bears her name might include a simple retrospective of her career and legacy.

To the Powers That Be: I’m willing to put my effort where my big mouth is; contact me!

And the final word of that retrospective might be the epitaph that anyone who lived a life in theatre would consider the highest honor: She knew her craft.

WPMStephen DeWoody 1

Stephen DeWoody has enjoyed an eclectic creative career in performing arts, themed entertainment and education. He has worked as an actor, announcer, art director, carpenter, cartoonist, critic, costume designer, dialect coach, director, editor, ghostwriter, graphic artist, lyricist, muralist, painter, producer, teacher and writer. Visit his website at

Vexing Venue

WPMMiss Derflinger 1970
The late Ann Derflinger and the auditorium that bears her name.

Although Winter Park High School is renowned for its performing arts program, the school’s elaborate productions far outshine the cheerless 43-year-old auditorium in which they are held. The on-campus facility, named the Ann Derflinger Auditorium in honor of the legendary drama teacher who died in 1983, seats 1,100, making it one of the largest venues in the region, and certainly the largest in Winter Park. However, much of the lighting and audio equipment is balky and obsolete. Seating is uncomfortable and the acoustics and aesthetics are sub-par. So the Winter Park High School Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises funds for school improvement projects, has embarked on a three-year “Raise the Curtain” campaign to raise $500,000 to update the facility. “We need to make the space more worthy of the caliber of events to which it plays host,” according to principal Timothy Smith, who notes that the theater is also frequently used for community events unrelated to the school.


Contributions are tax deductible and any amount is welcome. If you can help, please send your gift to the WPHS Foundation at P.O. Box 1722, Winter Park, FL 32790.

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