WILMINGTON — Teachers don’t go into the profession looking for recognition, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate when someone acknowledges their hard work and dedication.
That’s what Jeff Dietzler said earlier this month at St. Elizabeth School, where he is in his sixth year as the director of performing arts. He was nominated for The Dialog’s Teacher Feature by senior Abbie Townsend.
“I know teachers, we don’t need that, but when you’re able to get that and when you’re able to have a student do something like nominate you or recognize you or even write a note of thanks, it’s incredibly meaningful. It reminds me that what I am doing makes a difference,” Dietzler said.
A 2007 graduate of DeSales University, where he studied theater and education, Dietzler initially arrived at St. Elizabeth on a part-time basis to run the chorus and direct shows. The program has expanded, and the position became full-time. About 40-50 students are involved, which is a significant percentage of the upper school’s total enrollment. The annual variety show brings out non-regular participants. In the lower school, Dietzler said, the fall show used to have about 25 students participate. That has doubled.
“It’s awesome that there’s so much excitement and buzz,” he said.
At other schools where he has directed shows, he has worked with large stages. That is not the case at St. Elizabeth, where the Benedictine Performing Arts Center is a more condensed area. That plays a role in what shows he selects for the various productions.
“For me, initially, I had to think about what types of shows would look the best here. When I’m picking a show, there’s really two things I consider. One is, do we have the students that can play the various roles that we need. I want to pick a show that fits us best. And it’s also what fits best in this space?” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly had an effect on performing arts in schools. Last year’s spring musical, “Seussical,” was a virtual production. St. Elizabeth did a fall production, “Shakespeare Unmasked.”
“We kind of made it up. We put together about seven of the top, most well-known Shakespeare scenes, presented them traditionally, then turned them on their head and presented them in a 2020 COVID world and said what would that similar scene look like today? We did the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ balcony scene, and the flipped version was that they had to have that same scene, but it was over Zoom,” he said.
There was not a live audience for that show. Students and other personnel in the theater wore masks, and the show was recorded. Dietzler, 35, is now working on this year’s variety show and hopes they will be able to have an audience, even if it is just 60-80 people spread out in the BPAC.
During his time at St. Elizabeth, he has made progress on the complexity of the sets and the equipment in the BPAC. The Class of 2019 raised money that helped with the purchase of a new light board and with the rental of lights and other equipment. There is a booth to run the show, a stage manager, and light and sound board operators, for example.
The school offers a performing arts class for seventh- and eighth-grade students, and there is independent study in theater. Dietzler also is responsible for music for all school Masses and large events, and he directs the choirs. He considers himself a jack of all trades.
Townsend said Dietzler deserves the credit he always gives to his students. She said he lets creativity “run wild,” and he has helped her as an aspiring entertainer.
“Mr. Dietzler is a patient and understanding mentor who constantly encourages students to think and be outside the box. Since learning from him, my education in the arts has flourished. He inspires me every day to create and work hard,” she said.
Dietzler said he appreciates the work that the students put into a class that is not a requirement for graduation. Most of the student actors and backstage personnel will never work in a theater after high school, but the lessons they learn at St. Elizabeth will serve them well later in life.
“My overarching goal for all my classes, especially my acting ones, is to build their confidence. It’s one of the biggest things you can gain from being in theater, to build that confidence and to be up in front of people,” he said. “To go into that job interview and sell yourself to that person. Going in to talk to a teacher in college. There’s so many times in life that we have to be in front of people, we have to talk to people.”
Dietzler’s interest in the performing arts began at home in Delaware County, Pa. His father, Harry, is the executive director of the Upper Darby Summer Stage. Dietzler and his four siblings were all involved with the summer theater, although he is the only one to make it a career.
“We were kind of like the von Trapp’s, if you will,” he joked, referring to the Austrian family chronicled in the film “The Sound of Music.”
He met his wife, Beth, at De Sales, and the couple did a Disney internship after graduating.They have three children. Christopher, 8, and Chole, 6, are students at St. Elizabeth. Carson is 2 and will be a Viking when he is old enough.
Dietzler said his wife is also a critical part of his success at St. Elizabeth, helping with nearly every aspect of the productions. She has not been able to be in the school building for almost a year, but still supports the shows any way she can.
At St. Elizabeth, he finds joy in seeing his students progress on stage and behind the scenes, noting that a successful show requires dedication from all involved, not just the actors. He loves to see the students’ reaction when they find success.
“You know, it’s finally just getting a moment in a scene, and having that ‘a ha’ moment and really living it,” he said. “Seeing some of these students that have come in here and not even knowing how to use a screw gun, and being able to take on the task of building a flat and doing it confidently, seeing how that makes them feel, that’s why I do it.”