Teaching as a fine art

All the world’s a stage for this larger-than-life New Orleans educator and his students

With peeling paint, institution issues, cracked linoleum tiles, broken windowpanes and hopelessly scuffed wood floors, the building that houses the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Academy shows all its 100 years.

But a palpable energy thrives within, feeds on itself and intensifies, thanks largely to a dedicated staff of professional actors/dancers/artists-turned teachers and their extraordinary young charges.

Henry Hoffman is among the teachers whose unflagging enthusiasm for and belief in his students make the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts the success story it has become since its opening in 1974, with alumni including jazz greats Wynton Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard and stage actors Anthony Mackie and Mary Catherine Garrison.

After 11 years at NOCCA, Hoffman, a member of the 2001 All-USA Teacher Team, is creating a theater program for middle-school students at the new NOCCA academy.

“Henry comes in every day with the same vigor, the same energy, and he shares that excitement for learning – – for life — with his students,” says principal Cynthia Morrell. “He is dedicated, a true visionary.”

Hoffman earned a Ph.D. in theater and incorporates his varied 35-year acting career into his teaching, student productions and interactions with students. He pushes, challenges and counsels them to live life large, as he does. “I consider myself a tour guide for my students. I point out important sights along the way — oh, look, Aristotle! — and challenge them to see the world around them through theater and react to it from within, to receive it, to feel and taste it,” he says. “I want to create a space for them to receive acting, to understand that acting is about revelation, creating a space to reveal — and discover — yourself.”

Appearing ageless and called “Doc” and “Zen Master Hoffman,” he is described both as a genius and a madman by his students.

“When I first got to know him, we clashed a lot. He was forward about his ambition for his students and what he wanted them to be,” says Mackie, 23, who won raves off-Broadway starring as Tupac Shakur even before graduating from Julliard in May. “Henry was one of those teachers who wouldn’t let you quit,” Mackie says. “He wouldn’t let you fail. He just kept pushing, kept pushing, kept pushing.”

At one point, Hoffman told Mackie he had tremendous talent but was throwing it away. “It was one of those conversations that make you step up to the plate or walk back to the dugout,” Mackie recalls.

“He’s just a monster of a man. He is so much, so hard to tackle.”

Hoffman believes thinking, talking and writing powerfully are just as much a part of acting as the makeup and costumes. He developed a book-length strategy, the basis for NOCCA’s theater curriculum, for teaching oral and written communication skills to improve creative writing.

Before students consider performing a play, Hoffman has them study it with a “P square” he developed to analyze a work horizontally and vertically. It helps students with their writing and critical thinking skills, which they sometimes lack.

Mackie credits the P square with teaching him to write and think clearly and with making him conversant enough about the craft to play a good role in the movie about Eminem by Curtis Hansen (L.A. Confidential).

“It’s one of those things that gives you the vocabulary to sit down and talk to anyone about their work in a constructive, knowledgeable way,” he says. Beyond that, Hoffman instills promptness and discipline, says former student Christina Costello, 21. “His classes are incredibly intense. It’s not unusual to go beyond the bell because the discussions are so deep. He challenges students to dig deep and reach out beyond our ordinary lives.”

Hoffman’s goal is to get students to understand how important arts are in their lives. “It’s the bread on the table and not lagniappe (something extra),” he says. “The arts will make them aware of the world around them and how to connect with it on every level.”

Through the arts, Hoffman encourages students to explore issues of sex, race, class, religion, sexism, and discrimination. He teaches words like “deconstruction” and “multiculturalism,” and theories of life from the perspective of Zen Buddhists and Native Americans.

His students have mounted culturally, ethnically and intellectually diverse plays, including a Kabuki narrative based on the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. With the Young Shakespeare Company, Hoffman and other NOCCA faculty have presented productions with color- and sex-blind casts to predominantly black audiences at inner-city schools.

Mackie says winning a role in a production of King Lear that Hoffman co-directed and starred in was the real turning point for him. “It wasn’t so much doing a play as watching two of your teachers come to life in that performance,” he says. “They talked to me like I was a working actor. I had never experienced that before. “Hoffman, he says, simply won’t let you be average.

“He was one of those teachers who really, really pushed you. And when you succeeded, he was the one who put you on his shoulders and carried you around the room.”