Award-Winning Drama Teacher Chuck Miller Leaving Pinelands

Driving Force Behind School’s State-of-the-Art Theater Program
May 17, 2017
MR. DIRECTOR: Chuck Miller, whose Pinelands Thespians have won the most Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey awards for 12 years running, will now teach in Bergen County.

Pinelands Regional High School has lost its equivalent of Bill Belichick.

Charles “Chuck” Miller has resigned from Pinelands effective June 30 to accept a job at the Northern Valley Regional School District in Bergen County.

Miller could definitely match the accomplished New England Patriots head coach for success in his own field. Pinelands has dominated the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey’s (STANJ) annual high school theater competition for the past dozen years, winning almost 200 awards including almost 60 prestigious Governor’s Awards, the highest honor a Garden State high school thespian can capture. It just so happens that Miller has been Pinelands theater teacher for 12 years.

No wonder that Miller won his own Governor’s Award – Outstanding Teacher of Theatre – this winter. He’ll be joining students Isabella Raposa, who won this year’s STANJ Comedic Monologue competition, Tommy Allen and Jordyn Ventresca, who captured gold in Dramatic Pairs, and Christian DeFrancia, Kamryn Barr, Sabrina Matarazzo, Shane Nourie, Dan O’Brien and Paige Miller, who finished first in the Scene category, at a May 24 ceremony at the War Memorial Theatre in Trenton where they will receive their medals.

Pinelands’ success at the STANJ competitions is only part of Miller’s legacy. As director of the Pinelands Thespian’s plays and, especially, musicals, he crafted a legacy that will be hard to follow. The Pinelands Thespian Facebook page has dozens of reviews about his shows, all of them great.

After taking in a performance of this March’s “Spamalot” Holly Mergogey posted, “They always do such a great job it’s like being at a Broadway show! All these kids are so talented I am so happy I get to see their shows each year!”

In March 2015 Jill DeFelice said this about a performance of “Anything Goes:”

“Saw my first Pinelands Thespians performance tonight. What an amazing production! Congratulations on a wonder performance of Anything Goes. Great voices, excellent timing and comedic skills, and terrific choreography – by far the best HS production I have ever seen and it surpasses a lot of community theater stuff as well. Kudos to Mr. Miller. Also props to the stage hands, musicians, and the prop makers. The set was fantastic too. Can’t wait to see next year’s offering.”

This is what The SandPaper said after taking in a rehearsal of “Anything Goes:”

When audiences attending the Pinelands Thespians’ upcoming production of “Anything Goes” get a load of the spectacular tap dance that ends Act I, they’re likely to blow the roof off of the high school’s auditorium with their explosive applause.

The entire cast joins in the fun, and if this reporter’s count is correct, that means no fewer than 82 – yes, 82 – dancers join the thunder! By way of comparison, just 36 Rockettes form the line at Radio City Music Hall.

No wonder Pinelands shows could attract thousands – not hundreds, thousands – of audience members when its musicals had a two-weekend run. Miller’s productions had become must-see entertainment for residents of the district.

Miller created another, even more important sense of community at Pinelands. Several of the dancers in “Anything Goes” were football players! In typical high schools, the drama kids and jocks never ever intermingle. At Pinelands under Miller, they did. A clique buster, he brought the school’s population together.

The Pinelands Regional School District Board of Education has been under fire from a large segment of the public this spring for laying off six teachers including four members of the football team’s coaching staff. But it had nothing to do with Miller’s departure. He simply got, as Miller’s wife Beth put it, “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

“I got a really good offer,” said Miller himself. “Pinelands notoriously pays very low. I’ll be starting (at Northern Valley) higher than the highest step at Pinelands.”

Miller, a Pinelands grad, practically bleeds the school colors of green and gold. But the prospect of putting two kids through college – one has already started – pushed him to make his decision. Plus, he said, the move would make for a great “pension bump.”

It won’t be easy. Miller will be renting an apartment in Bergen County for a year. Beth will remain as an English teacher in the Pinelands District, at least for the 2017-2018 school year. Still, Miller is excited about the prospect of building up another theater program.

“Maybe in a couple of years Pinelands will finally have competition at the STANJ,” he joked.

The board of education was effusive with its praise for Miller when it officially accepted his resignation at its May 10 meeting.

Stephen Bonicky, a member representing Little Egg Harbor Township, suggested the high school’s theater be named after Miller. Then the discussion around the board table centered on the possibility of voting against his resignation as a symbolic move, a discussion that came to an end when the board attorney warned that refusing to accept his resignation could have legal repercussions for Miller in his new job.

Miller, who teaches all of the Pinelands drama classes from ninth grade up, said a replacement will be hired. And he said that his directorial assistant, Bart DiFrancia, would be able to pick up the reins with the Pinelands Thespians.

“I have 150 percent confidence in Bart,” said Miller, adding the new era will start with a production of “White Christmas” in December.

— Rick Mellerup


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