Nicholas Wainwright grew up in theater productions, but his love for education began at an inner-city school.
“You have to try to explain your passion to students who look at you like you have six heads until, all of a sudden, they hear that first round of applause,” Wainwright said. “And then a light bulb goes off, and you see their growth.”
His journey provided ample preparation for his current role as the first drama director at Horizon High School.
Born in New Jersey to supportive parents, Wainwright was encouraged at an early age to find his passion through trial and error.
“I call it the spaghetti technique,” he said. “They’d try and stick me everywhere and see where I actually stuck.”
TRIAL BY FIRE
After ruling out sports with a goal in his own team’s soccer net, he focused on the performing arts by trying out for variety shows at age 8.
“I was in a talent show at the Strand Theatre (in New Jersey) the same week they were doing auditions for ‘Mame,’” Wainwright said. “The director saw the talent show and said I should come and audition.”
He landed a small role in that musical and went on to more projects that allowed him to hone his skills. Each new production came with new lessons, but a surprise challenge came at age 15 while working as the music director for a production of “Cinderella.”
“I was thrown to the wolves when the director left,” Wainwright said. “I had to take over, and (the cast) was older than me, and I just had to adapt quickly.”
He adapted so well to directing that it replaced performing as his passion. Wainwright sought new projects throughout high school and built a directing résumé that led him to enroll in the Directing, Playwriting and Production program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
While earning his bachelor’s degree, a friend from the nearby Curtis Institute of Music reached out for some assistance with a new art initiative at South Philadelphia High School.
“It was so hard every day to keep explaining to students that seemingly didn’t care, until they did,” Wainwright said. “And once they did they were your biggest advocators for the next year.”
He worked with the program for two years, watching the impact on attitudes and aptitudes.
“They had a graduation rate that was like 30%,” Wainwright said. “But with the arts initiative, that graduation rate almost doubled.”
A NEW KIND OF PROGRAM
Childhood vacations to Central Florida laid the groundwork for life after college. Theme parks provided endless opportunities for performers when Wainwright moved in 2018 to Orlando, but he was called back to teaching when tourism shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wainwright took the role of drama teacher at Narcoosee Middle School in 2020 and built its drama department. Later that year, he became a teaching artist at the Garden Theatre. And in May, Wainwright was invited to join the opening team at Horizon High School as drama director and instructor.
“The wonderful joy of opening a new program and a new school is that we are all new,” he said. “We all have our own experiences that we’re bringing here, but we decided that we are building something brand new for this district and for this community.”
Wainwright’s enthusiasm for his new position is equalled by his enthusiasm for Horizon’s entire performing arts staff.
“They are crazy talented … and they’re inspiring their students already,” Wainwright said. “We support each other, we’re all willing to adapt and embrace that this is a new school, and we want to establish it as a new kind of arts department program.”
As fun and challenging as performances may be, they are a backdrop to the greater good Wainwright knows can be achieved by having the arts in the curriculum.
“It doesn’t matter if my students leave here wanting to go to school for theater,” he said. “They’re all learning skills that they can take outside of that medium and apply to other things. It’s important to have at least one arts class whether it be theater, music, dance or visual arts. It just needs to be something that gets the creative mind working.”