Exit stage right: Drama teacher Robyn Metchik retires

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 21, 2012 

Surrounded by drama students, Robyn Metchik offers a quick update to those recently returned from spring break.

“We have a show in three weeks, believe it or not,” she tells the students, her voice hoarse — as usual before a show.

While trying to reach the show’s choreographer on the phone, she simultaneously sorts out some of the roles.

“If you’re going to be a bottle dancer, you need to start rehearsing with the top hats and the bottles,” she says.

The students are preparing for “The Laramie Project,” a Nipomo High School show that runs May 3-5. But Metchik will also direct “Schoolhouse Rock,” a show put on by her students at Paulding and Mesa middle schools. And after “Laramie,” there will be the “Best of the Best” at the high school, beginning May 17.

“I never get sleep,” Metchik said later. “I go to sleep about 2 at night right before a show’s opening up.”

After a decade of seven-day weeks and countless shows, Metchik — known for getting actor Zac Efron his big break — is now ready for her final act in education: retirement.

But while the idea of getting rest is appealing, as Shakespeare wrote, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” “I’m an emotional wreck,” said Metchik, who started the daytime drama program at Paulding Middle School and has led Nipomo High’s highly recognized drama program since it began. “Because I’m leaving this chapter behind.”

She almost gets teary-eyed, but perks up to add: “But I’m 61. We work seven days a week, and I’m finally tired.”

Love of drama

Growing up in Yuma, Ariz., Metchik wanted to be a teacher, a nurse or an airline attendant.

“But I always did drama,” she said. “My sisters always sang. My whole family always sang.”

She performed in community theater and in college. But after earning her elementary education degree from the University of Arizona, she became an elementary school teacher in 1972.

“I always did plays in my classrooms,” said Metchik, of Oceano, who has lived on the Central Coast since the early 1980s. “And pretty soon other classrooms joined my classrooms.”

After teaching at various schools in this county, she began to specialize in drama at Mesa Middle School, which led to drama assignments at Paulding and then Nipomo High.

Beginning in the ’90s, however, Metchik took a break from full-time teaching to help her sons focus on their own acting endeavors. Asher appeared on television’s “Growing Pains,” along with the movies “Trading Mom,” “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Freaky Friday,” among others. His older brother, Aaron, who was also in “Trading Mom” and “The Baby-Sitters Club,” was a regular on “The Torkelsons” and “Wild Palms.”

Metchik took 10 years off from her career so she could drive her sons back and forth to Los Angeles. (Her husband, Paul, is a real estate attorney.) But Metchik said she wasn’t a pushy stage mom who wanted to live vicariously through her kids.

“You can’t make a kid sit in the car six hours, there and back, if they don’t want to do it,” she said. “My daughter didn’t want to do it — she went into art. But my two sons did want to do it, and they went into acting.”

When her sons were young, Metchik occasionally taught at local schools on a contract basis. And when they were finished acting or became old enough to do it on their own, she returned to the classroom full time. (Her son Asher is now an engineer, her daughter, Ari, is preparing to attend Harvard Medical School, and Aaron has remained in the performing arts.)

As a drama teacher, she encouraged lots of shows — Nipomo High had five this year alone — even if that meant more work.

“I don’t have to do that many shows,” she said. “But you can see we have a class of 80 kids. I have to offer them different projects. Not everybody wants to do a musical.”

Her famous student

Getting back to the classroom allowed Metchik the opportunity to teach her most successful student — Zac Efron. A former Paulding Middle School student, the Arroyo Grande native benefited from the many performances Metchik staged.

“She was sort of a mother figure,” Efron told The Tribune in 2007. “She kept us all performing together, put us in shows and trained us — and that’s how we fell in love with performing.”

Noticing that Efron had a “sparkle” — and potential — she recommended he try out for roles in Hollywood and referred him to an agent. While Efron started out in a few minor roles, before long he was a teen heartthrob, thanks to his leads in Disney’s “High School Musical” series. During that time, Metchik was frequently called upon for interviews.

“I had E! Entertainment come down, and they taped a whole section at Paulding,” Metchik said.

While the media frenzy has settled, Efron’s career is still strong. He stars in “The Lucky One,” based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, and is set to star in “The Paperboy” with Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey.

“He’s still amazing,” Metchik said.

Efron isn’t the only Metchik student to fare well. Joanna Jones, a Nipomo grad who was on the NBC show “The Sing-Off,” has been cast in “Thriller Live” — a tribute to Michael Jackson — in London. And several others have continued to work in performing arts.

“I’ve got about 10 to 15 who graduated from PCPA and are now all over the country,” Metchik said, referring to the well-respected theater program at Hancock College. “It’s awesome.”

While Efron’s success inspires students, it’s not what draws them to the teacher they affectionately call “Metchik.”

“I came and saw ‘Anything Goes,’ which was in 2009,” said Paisley Foster Saunders, a senior who commutes from Lompoc daily to attend Nipomo High’s drama program. “It was amazing. I was blown away. I’d never seen a high school do anything like that, and I was like, ‘I have to go there.’ ”

Saunders particularly likes Metchik’s patience. “We, as high schoolers, can be very challenging sometimes,” said Saunders, who plans to study drama at Cal State Fullerton next year. “We’re rambunctious. Theater students as a group tend to have attention issues. At the end of the day, she always makes us feel like we’ve spent our time doing something worthwhile.”

Students, in turn, recognize her efforts.

“I owe it to Metchik to be as committed as I am,” said senior Holly Patterson, who drives to Nipomo from San Luis Obispo every day. “Because that’s her life. She stays up until 3 in the morning doing stuff for us.”

Tribute performance

The students will show their appreciation Friday at the Clark Center with a show honoring Metchik, “Take a Bow!”

Spotlighting alumni who have studied under the drama teacher, the show — featuring highlights of past performances from Nipomo High — will raise money for the drama department and the Clark Center Association. (Metchik said it would be great if Efron could attend, but she has not heard whether the busy actor will make it.)

After retirement — and a six-month break — Metchik said she might do some local community theater. And, if asked, she might even return to the schools as a guest director. (Her current position is posted but has not been filled.)

But right now, she’s preparing for a sad ending.

“I’ve been crying every night,” she said. “It’s really weird. Because I was really looking forward to it, and now I just realized, ‘My god, I’m really doing it.’ ”

‘Take a Bow! A Tribute to Robyn Metchik’s Retirement’

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Clark Center for the Performing Arts, Arroyo Grande

Tickets: $35 (students $20)

More info: 489-9444

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