Can you bring to memory your favorite teacher of all-time? Think of all of the classes you took throughout your educational career and many people find that only one teacher stands out from the rest. Recently, and quite coincidentally, we discovered that for Chamber President Katie Worthington and myself, Marketing Coordinator Brianna Price, it was the very same teacher, albeit a decade apart in school. A Theatre Director from Winter Haven High School fit the bill.
Rob Fritz, the Theatre Director at Winter Haven High School, has not only made his mark on students over the course of his teaching career, he is leading a very successful theatre program and has been for 19 years. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Fritz and speak to him about their upcoming production, Monty Python’s SPAMALOT, his experience as a high school theatre director and his after-school theatre program.
We have a quest to find the grail!
On April 26th – 29th, Winter Haven High School theatre students will take to the stage to perform an incredible, but silly show, that just so happened to be a smash Broadway hit. SPAMALOT was written by the original members of Monty Python and is based on Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. Except, in this story, the Holy Grail isn’t the grail of Christ, it is making it to Broadway. When I asked Mr. Fritz what the audience can expect from this play he said, “The audience can expect lots of silly humor, but humor that is intellectually based.” He went on to explain that many forms of entertainment have a silly humor that doesn’t necessarily have any intellect behind it. This play is different, in that it focuses on the psychology of comedy and the audience.
Fritz explained that, “The Pythons get it. This production appeals to the intellect of an audience by being silly, without being stupid. It takes the production to the next level.” He explained that students were so excited that this production was chosen that there was an increase in the number of auditions.
Mr. Fritz really wanted to build on their last season and felt that this production was the perfect way to do that and pull the students in without doing the “same old thing.” This production gives students a challenge, but is also something they can enjoy being a part of and unleash their creativity.
To prepare for this show, the students have been hard at work. From painting sets, building a 9ft Star of David to learning choreography and fun loving songs, these students take their craft seriously. I got a sneak peek on their rehearsals and was amazed at the amount of student involvement that goes into productions. “No one really knows how much these kids do in a production. They are involved in every aspect,” Mr. Fritz explained. This aspect of the Winter Haven High School Drama Department is what sets them apart from other schools.
Preparing for their future
Mr. Fritz explained that anyone who wants to go into the business of theatre is typically going to attend a special college for theatre but, since the majority of American theatre happens at the community level, it is more likely for his students to become involved in community theatre after finishing college and beginning their careers: “If the majority of these students are going to end up performing in community theatre, than we need to prepare them for life in a community theatre.” Which is why he teaches them to run Blue Devil Drama like a community theatre. They have a student board of directors, student choreographers, student stage managers, student paint captains, student set designers and more. They are in charge of running transitions during shows, backstage management and sometimes get to assist in the directing process.
Running his theatre department in this way gives student the opportunity to learn what hard work goes into each production, but it also allows the students to get creative. His goal is to give his students a chance to find their creativity and once they find it, he encourages them to start exploring it. On the flip side of that, he also wants to give them a chance to fall flat on their faces. “In this day and age, we tend to make excuses why students can’t succeed, but this production and department is proof that students can succeed.” Even when his student do fail, he uses it as an opportunity for a teachable moment, where the students can acknowledge failure and creatively find a solution.
“If I didn’t get one more chance to act, I would be fine. But if I could no longer direct, that would be difficult.” Mr. Fritz has had a long career of acting. He is the founding director of OUT OF THE BOX Improv, teaches improv at Theatre Winter Haven, was a long-time Board member and past president of Lake Wales Little Theatre, has taught various classes and workshops and had numerous other acting performances. But what brings him joy is being able to direct and teach his students. He described the students as the paint and he’s the painter. He gets to pull their gifts and talents out of them and use them in the right way to create a masterpiece.
Leaving a long-lasting impact
Mr. Fritz doesn’t like talking about himself, so when I asked him how he feels that so many of his students remember him as their favorite teacher, he finds himself speechless. “I am always surprised when I hear that I have left an impact on a student’s life, but it is flattering and humbling.” His desire has always been to be a good teacher who provides students with opportunities to find themselves and explore creativity. Not every teacher is fortunate to see the influence they made on students. He described it as very encouraging, especially on the days that he feels like he isn’t making a difference.
He went on to tell me that he feels privileged to have had such a wonderful experience in the world of theatre arts education. In his 20’s he got a dream job at Santa Fe High School with some of the best students. Katie Worthington was one of those students and she described her thankfulness to Mr. Fritz and the drama department helping her acclimate to a brand new school after moving to Lakeland from Nashville. After he left Santa Fe to teach at Mulberry High School, he was contacted by Santa Fe with news that their recently hired drama teacher left the school in the middle of rehearsals for a production. His principal at Mulberry was gracious enough to allow him to help Santa Fe finish out their production. Not long after this, the position at Winter Haven High School opened up and he has been there ever since.
Through this position he was invited to perform with Comedy Buffet, where he met his wife Audrey, has the chance to explore his creativity and has free reign in all of the shows they produce. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” The best part of his position, he described, is seeing kids who have zero confidence become confident and creative people.
When people think of Winter Haven theatre they think of Theatre Winter Haven or even the opportunities provided to students at Harrison School of the Arts in Lakeland, but it’s important to know that Winter Haven High School is thriving in the arts, even without an arts school designation. They have incredible programs like orchestra, drawing, improv, sculpting and music. “These students are doing what we want kids to do! They are learning important life skills, giving back to the community and staying out of trouble.” The Winter Haven community can expect more great productions, students finding who they are, community style theatre and utilizing the talents in each student.
Mr. Fritz’s mantra for his Theatre Department is, “Performing is a privilege.” This privilege requires hard work, dedication, confidence and creativity. Students who are a part of this theatre program and the production, SPAMALOT, have been giving it their all. Aside from the 4 days of afternoon rehearsal that they are expected to attend, they are also required to spend three days of their spring break in rehearsals and preparation. If that isn’t dedication, than I don’t know what is!
Winter Haven High School students Grant, Ben and Kalynn shared with me their theatre experience with Mr. Fritz and the Winter Haven High School “Blue Devil” drama program. Grant, who is a junior at the high school, shared that he never really had an interest in acting or singing. But he decided to audition for a play his freshman year and ended up landing a bigger role. After that he was hooked! He even got a few of his friends to join the drama club when they initially had no desire to be a part of it. Those same students are now actively involved in every aspect of production. Ben was one of those students. He said he always had a negative view of drama and he felt it was only for certain types of people. But he admits now that he loves every second of being able to express himself through the arts. Kalynn, who is the Paint Captain of the team, describes drama club as very open. “They accept everyone and that makes it feel like home to me.”
Mr. Fritz has created an atmosphere of inclusion, creativity, excellence and inspiration in his Theatre department and never stops bragging on his students. Although he directs and teaches them, they are the ones making the arts come to life. Their production of Monty Python’s SPAMALOT will be presented on April 26th, 27th and 28th at 7:30 p.m. and again on the 29th at 2:30 p.m. The Winter Haven community is always incredible in the way they come together to show their support, so stop by Winter Haven High School on one of those days to see an incredible show. You won’t regret it!