According to her mother, Paula Dean made a dramatic entrance at birth. She’s been sharing her theatrical flair ever since, through 25 years of teaching and a lifetime of performing on stage and on camera.
Now in her 16th year at Providence High School, Dean counts more than 20 former students working in the film or TV industry, has several credits of her own, and recently wrapped an ambitious production of the “Wizard of Oz.”
“Doing that show is like renovating an old house. There are 22 scenes; it’s just major and there were a lot of challenges, but we didn’t take anything out,” said Dean. “I have to keep doing new things, continue to learn, otherwise, what’s the point?”
Dean’s office is crowded with memorabilia and photos from previous shows, including “42nd Street” (“When no one else wanted to touch it,” according to Dean), “Oklahoma” (with a live horse named Andy on stage), and an original work she wrote called “A Bite off Broadway.”
One of the things she is most proud of, though, is establishing a film and TV productions curriculum, which she did within her first couple of years at Providence.
“I knew it was a medium that was going to expand and the possibilities were just endless because of the technology,” said Dean. “It’s been an exciting thing to watch grow.”
She didn’t just watch it. In the early 2000s, Dean took courses each summer at Hollins University in Virginia to earn her graduate degree in screenwriting and film studies.
“I have a passion for acting and I have a passion for film,” said Dean, who continues to take acting classes and auditions regularly for TV and movie roles. She landed the part of a receptionist in season two of Showtime’s Emmy-winning drama “Homeland,” which is filmed predominantly in Charlotte. She doesn’t watch the show, though, so she’s not sure if her part aired.
Auditioning often requires Dean to take time outside of school, but she sees it as an integral part of her role as a teacher.
“I look at it as doing what I’m teaching them to do. If I’m out there and I’m doing it, then I know what I’m talking about,” Dean said.
Drama booster president Dena Bruton-Claus agrees: “Providence is uniquely fortunate to have Ms. Dean teaching the film and TV classes. She has some great experience in these media, and her knowledge and enthusiasm give the students very cool and relevant opportunities.”
Dean, who says she’s “old enough to know better and old enough to care” (about sharing her age), began staging her own performances as a child growing up in the small town of Hannibal, Mo.
Although she had two older sisters, Dean says she was a “one woman show,” putting on pageants for her parents, who eventually channeled some of that energy into dance classes. She took ballet, tap and other genres for about 10 years, and also sang in the choir.
“I was never a triple threat, like some of the kids here (at Providence),” said Dean. “I have more of a character voice; a Carol Burnett style.”
The first significant role she remembers was a part in “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners” when she was in 10th grade. She took the play seriously and immersed herself in rehearsing.
“At the time, I thought it was stellar, that I was vital,” Dean recalls. “Gosh, my poor Mom and Dad! I remember them laughing a couple of times when I was practicing and I didn’t get why at the time. Mom told me I should study my math as much as I studied my lines.”
When she wasn’t on stage or in the classroom, Dean filled in as the substitute mascot for the marching band, founded the school’s first drama club, and participated in a summer program called the Ice House Theater. She also volunteered at a clinic that served people with special needs, and discovered she had a talent for connecting with the kids.
Those experiences led her to Northeast Missouri State University (renamed Truman State University in 1996) where she majored in theater and also received a minor in special education.
During college, Dean took on more responsibility behind the scenes, learning how to put things together, lighting techniques and the intricacies of stage makeup. She realized, early on, that she was probably going to teach.
“I didn’t think I was really good enough,” Dean said, “and I like to eat. I didn’t want to be a starving artist.”
Providence High School principal Tracey Harrill thinks Dean has found her calling.
“Ms. Dean is very skilled in reaching kids of all abilities, all levels of experience. She scaffolds their learning by starting with something small and slowly building up, and by the time she’s finished, they’ve learned a lot.”
Even though it’s still several years away, Dean is already planning her retirement, but she isn’t quite sure where her life will take her.
“What do I want to do when I grow up?” Dean asks. “I’m as bad as the kids, I keep changing my mind.”
Wherever she lands, she will undoubtedly find a way to continue acting.
“It’s in the fiber of who I am,” Dean said.
Angel Trimble is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Angel? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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