Conway High School theater teacher A.J. Spiridigliozzi was described by his building principal as being “set on 100 mph all the time.”
That’s just until he kicks into overdrive. The 37-year-old bundle of energy was beside himself when it was announced that he was the 2019 Conway School District Teacher of the Year.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. His wife, Lauren, a 10th-grade Pre-Advanced Placement English teacher, knew he was going to win and encouraged him to change from his jeans to dress pants the day of the announcement, but he didn’t catch on.
“I was completely and totally blindsided in all of it,” he said. “First, I was blindsided my name was on the ballot, blindsided that I won, blindsided that I was District Teacher of the Year.
“To even get nominated at the high school was an unbelievable honor. There are so many rock stars at that school, my wife being the main rock star. I’ve learned so much from her.”
Spiridigliozzi, a Chittenango, New York, native, has been teaching for 13 years in the Conway School District. He teaches theater, as well stagecraft, a program he worked to bring to the high school. “If drama is process, stagecraft is the product. Stagecraft is learning all the backstage jobs and all the things that go into that.”
He has previously taught forensics, debate, drama and oral communications at the high school and junior high.
He got the acting bug early on.
“It all started when I was Peter Rabbit in my kindergarten play,” he said. “I did everything I could in high school; I did some professional stuff in high school and college in the summers.”
Spiridigliozzi volunteered as a camp counselor and liked the combination of kids and theater.
His hometown was the perfect atmosphere for a budding actor — it’s the birthplace of The Wizard of Oz creator, L. Frank Baum.
“It’s the land of Oz. Our little village takes credit. … There’s a yellow brick road in town, and we have Oz Fest (now called Oz-Stravaganza) every year.
“Every year, one of the munchkins would ride in the float in that tiny little town,” he said.
He said there was an annual Wizard of Oz costume contest at the festival.
“One year, I was the Tin Man; I got second place out of two.”
He took his two children back to his hometown for the festival, and they fared better.
“Jaxson won for his lion [costume]. My son Noah — my brother-in-law dressed him up as the wizard, and he won,” Spiridigliozzi said.
Spiridigliozzi called his parents “amazing.”
“They’re my best pals. My dad and I talk every morning on my way to work.”
Spiridigliozzi’s days start early — he’s also a bus driver for the district.
His mother, Sharon, is retired from the Chittenango Central School District, where she was an administrative assistant in the counseling office. His father, John, is a chief operating officer of a tech-based company in Syracuse.
Spiridigliozzi said he gets his sense of humor from both parents.
“I get my dry sense of humor from my dad and my goofiness from my mom,” he said. “We laughed a lot. They were mostly laughing at me.”
After high school, Spiridigliozzi went to The College at Brockport, State University of New York. The summer before his senior year of college, he had an internship as a back-lot tour guide at Disney-MGM Studios, now Disney Hollywood Studios.
“It was fun,” he said, but “it was super repetitive. I would always make up things and get talked to about it. I met great people. I also did an internship at a professional regional theater in Rochester, called Geva, right before I came here to Arkansas. That was amazing.”
He had the opportunity to come to Arkansas for a summer, and he said he fell in love with the state. He taught theater at the Boys & Girls Club summer camp in Conway; then he was back in New York to graduate from college — his degree is interdisciplinary arts for the child with a theater emphasis.
After moving to Arkansas for good, he spent a year teaching at the Focus Learning Academy, a short-lived charter school in Conway.
Then he worked for Arkansas Children’s Theatre as an actor and teaching artist for two years.
“I did a lot of acting, did some film, commercials. … It was very, very cool,” he said.
Spiridigliozzi also taught at the Arkansas Children’s Theatre summer academy for five years. In the meantime, he co-founded Improv Little Rock.
“They’re still performing to this day,” he said. “I performed with them about 10 years. They’re great.”
He was also a member of Drinking From the Carton, an improv group he formed with men he met while doing a show through the Conway Community Arts Association.
“I love improv; sometimes I think I prefer it to straight acting,” he said. “It’s hard to teach.”
After the Arkansas Children’s Theatre acting/teaching gig, Spiridigliozzi moved to a teaching position at Rockefeller Elementary School in Little Rock, where he started a “little after-school theater program.”
When he was hired in the Conway School District, he taught both for Conway High School-East, now Conway Junior High School, and Conway High School-West, now Conway High School. The past 10 years, he’s been at the high school.
Spiridigliozzi’s major project the past 12 years has been directing the Conway High School musical, which brings together more than 150 students, many of whom call him “Mr. S.”
Past shows have included Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan, complete with the flying, and Good News!, performed this year, which was the highest-grossing musical of them all. Next year, the school will perform Newsies.
“The show every year is always really special. What makes it so great is because of the relationship with the kids. You just get so close with them, and you become this giant family. Every year, I get to experience the closeness with those kids,” he said. “They become these phenomenal actors, and you see them go off in college and do things, take that passion and do something with it outside the school. It’s so cool.”
One of those former students is Hart Denton, who performed in Hairspray his senior year. He’s found success playing Chic Cooper on Riverdale on the CW Channel.
“I didn’t really know him until his senior year. We’ve really bonded and got close since then,” Spiridigliozzi said. “Now he’s big time.”
Spiridigliozzi was quick to point out that he has lots of help for the musical each year, and he reeled off the names of several faculty members. He enlists help from the community, too.
“I have my limits. There are things like stage makeup and construction, so we bring people in from the community to help.”
He also praised his wife for her sacrifices each year to help him with the show.
“No way I can take full credit for those musicals,” he said. “[Lauren] drops everything to help.”
His parents even make the trek from New York to help with the musical.
“Dad has been in the show,” Spiridigliozzi said. “He’s worked lighting; he’s worked backstage. Mom helps sell tickets. They’re part of the team.”
Spiridigliozzi said his parents are known as Pop and Sharebear to his children, and the students call them that, too.
One of his goals is to build a stronger connection in the community.
“UCA has been really great; we’ve created a partnership,” he said. “We’ve also been able to work with Hendrix in the past. We have a relationship with the Red Curtain Theater, Blackbird Academy — we’re all one big team. I want to continue to grow that. We help each other out when anyone needs anything.”
Spiridigliozzi has directed plays for the Red Curtain Theatre, as well as a couple of children’s shows for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. He’s also performed in a Shakespeare Theatre production.
Spiridigliozzi is filling out his paperwork for Arkansas Teacher of the Year, which is the title held now by Conway elementary teacher Randi House.
“Talk about big shoes to fill with Randi; she’s already represented us so well,” he said.
Spiridigliozzi isn’t sure lightning can strike twice for one school district, but he said it’s “a huge honor” to be in the mix.
House said she knows of Spiridigliozzi, and it “absolutely could” happen for another Conway teacher to win the state title.
“I think my advice would be just to be sure and share his students’ stories when he’s applying. … Think about students and students he’s had before he responds,” she said.
Spiridigliozzi said he’s happy to be doing what he loves.
“I’ve been so blessed to see the theater program grow,” he said, “and I want to keep on keeping on — keep growing the program to the best of our abilities and to our realistic limits of what we can do.
“I want to be able to provide the kids strong opportunities and background so if they do choose to go to college, do choose to go into the professional world, they feel like they got a good foundation in Conway.”
Theater helps students in several ways, he said.
“It builds confidence; it builds the ability to make connections with people who are different from them.”
He said it also helps students get up in front of a group to speak, whether it’s to a gathering at church or a sports team in the locker room.
Being a theater teacher is unique, he said.
“I do have a freedom I think a lot of teachers don’t have. What makes it tricky, there is no AP theater. … You have all walks in a classroom, and you’re trying to get them not only to express themselves but also to work together as an ensemble. That can be really challenging — really, really challenging,” Spiridigliozzi said, laughing. “I’m really hands-on; I’m a kinesthetic learner. I try to make theater a hands-on experience for the kids. They’re seldom sitting.”
That works out perfectly, because neither is he.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.