March 12, 2013 > Great Scott
By Pamela Rosen
Only the bravest soul would accept the insurmountable task of taking over a high school drama department from a 36-year veteran teacher, discover it was deep in debt, and claim, "Wow, I've made it."
Scott Di Lorenzo's eyes dart around Irvington High School's Valhalla Theatre with a practiced rhythm. There are doors to be constantly monitored, students who are quietly curled up in seats doing homework, and he has to pick up the unending parade of snack foods and forgotten backpacks and jackets that fill the seats when the audiences aren't there. Valhalla is an oddly-built, somewhat ungainly space for a high school theatre, but Valhalla represents everything that Di Lorenzo, now in his second year as Artistic Director for Irvington's Arts Magnet program, is responsible for - it's big, it's a bit awkward, there are unexpected surprises and messes to be cleaned up around every corner, and, like Di Lorenzo himself, it's only there out of sheer love for arts education.
Di Lorenzo, 28, inherited Valhalla and its renowned arts magnet program a year ago. He was selected after of a year-long nationwide search to replace retiring Linda Jackson-Whitmore, who had run the program since 1978. Replacing the indomitable "Ms. J" was a tall order. Whoever would step into Jackson-Whitmore's shoes had to be tireless, tenacious, singularly dedicated, a fountain of creativity, thrifty, diplomatic, have exquisite taste, be inspirational to hundreds of students--and courageous almost to the point of insanity. After interviewing countless applicants, the selection committee chose Scott Di Lorenzo after only one interview and twenty minutes. The committee knew immediately that they had their man.
Once Di Lorenzo got to Irvington, his students and colleagues quickly learned they were not to be fooled by his boyish looks, tender age, and willingness to be clownish. Di Lorenzo is a man with a plan. "My vision is for the people of Fremont to look at Irvington High School Theatre as just 'Irvington Theatre,' a theatre company that just happens to be located in a high school. There's this thought that high school theatre isn't 'real;' isn't worth being taken seriously. That isn't fair. So I pick shows that will engage audiences, and stretch the kids, and I back that up with a hearty curriculum that trains them to be up to the challenge."
Irvington's drama calendar includes two major productions a year, plus a children's show for local field trips, a public mime show, a spring production for beginning students, traveling to multiple competitions throughout the year, with potential trips to study in London in the future, or perform in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the world famous Fring Festival. And then, of course, there's fundraising.
Arriving at Irvington, Di Lorenzo discovered two life-changing facts about his new job: first, there was no funding to support all of these activities, even though Irvington is a magnet school. Then came the real jaw-dropper: his new department was thousands of dollars in debt. At 27 years of age, knowing no one in Fremont, with just four years of teaching experience, he was responsible for paying that bill.
"I sat in my office and just stared at this pile of bills for what must have been half an hour," Di Lorenzo relates. "Then I decided to just take it on. That kind of debt was unacceptable." He had done his homework before starting at Irvington. "I knew what the history of this department was. There were dedicated, hard working volunteer parents and students who gave every moment they could to the department. But they didn't seem to be aware of the problem. I had to start right there. I had to rally them toward that cause - raise the money to pay it off, get some seed money to start over, and take some real pride in the program."
Parents and students worked side by side, raising money while putting on productions, attending competitions, and taking classes. Meanwhile, Di Lorenzo reached out to other local theatre organizations, including Ohlone College and StarStrick Theatre, and the other schools in the area. By the end of the year, the debt was erased, and the department had some money in the bank. With Scott DiLorenzo at the helm, Irvington's theatre department was not only solvent, but unified, and he was no longer quite so alone.
"When I was teaching at Palm Springs High," he remembers, "my colleagues had been my former teachers. It was my own school. It was hard for them to take me seriously. I'm very aware that I'm only ten years older than my oldest student. My students see me as an older brother. They let me into their life, and I let them into mine, and I like to think that even though they loved Linda, they love me, too. But I'm asking for respect. That's the only way this is going to work. We still need to raise the money. We still need to compete on a national level, even against well-funded private schools. We did it at Palm Springs, and we went to the nationals in the English Speaking Union Shakespeare Competition. There's no reason we can't do that here. But it's got to start with respect."
Di Lorenzo learned that lesson from his own high school drama teacher and mentor at Palm Springs High, Rosemary Mallett. He knew he wanted to be a teacher from the time he was in third grade, but didn't focus in on drama until high school. Mallett encouraged him, was always there to help him make tough decisions, and eventually, she asked him to replace her. So Di Lorenzo had already taken over for one long-term beloved drama teacher when he came to Irvington. Mallett had preached quality, balance, controlled risk-taking, and discipline, all qualities Di Lorenzo has brought with him.
"I couldn't be more proud of my students, too. I give them a lot of room to grow. What really makes me happy is when a student 'gets it,' when someone overcomes a mannerism problem, or something just clicks. I look for small victories. In education, you don't get a lot of big victories. My students' success is my success. Being here, I really do feel like I 'made it.' I'm an educator first, a director second. I can only go so far, and then the students have to do the rest. And they always do."