Dennis Wilson tries to have a smile for everyone he meets.
“Every morning, I get up and walk my dogs and think positive thoughts,” he said. “Everyone I encounter, I try and make them smile. That’s my small part, to try and affect people’s spirits in a positive way.”
And, as the new theater arts teacher at Niagara Falls High School, he’s eager to share his positive outlook and teach other important life skills to his students, who range from sophomores to seniors.
“I tell them it doesn’t matter to me if they become actors when they become adults,” he said. “Theater has a 99.9 percent unemployment rate and you have to learn how to constantly prove yourself and deal with rejection. I’m interested in helping my students develop as whole adults. I want them to learn how to speak well, know how to present themselves, have confidence and be versatile.”
Wilson knows firsthand how competitive life in the theater can be. The LaSalle grad earned a bachelor's degree in theater arts from Niagara University and performed in local community theater before setting out for New York City to pursue his dreams more than 20 years ago.
That optimistic attitude, talent and luck – and a push from a friend from NU – helped him land a job just three weeks after his arrival in the Big Apple. It was a role in a national touring production of “Five Guys Named Moe,” which showcased his acting, singing and dancing talents for an 18-month run.
“Our director was Charles Augins, who is based in London and is a Lawrence Olivier Award winner, which is like our Academy Awards,” Wilson recalled. “He was very tough, a very demanding director, but we learned a lot about the business end of show business from him and that’s what gives you longevity.”
Roles in a number of other productions, including “Once On This Island,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Dutchman” and “The Zoo Story,” led to opportunities to choreograph other performances, such as “Cabaret,” “The Wiz,” “Ragtime,” “West Side Story” and more.
“First and foremost, I’m a dancer,” Wilson said. “I had always danced and understood it, even though I had no formal training until I got to Niagara University.”
Directing credits also included productions of “Annie,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “Shades of Gray: Reading Between the Color Lines.”
After years of the city’s hustle bustle and seeking a little peace and quiet, Wilson moved about 15 minutes outside of New York City to East Orange, N.J., he recalled. Two friends visiting from the Falls asked him about a new building being erected in his neighborhood and encouraged him to apply when he found out it would be a new performing arts school. He thought he’d like to direct school musicals there, he recounted with a chuckle.
But following several interviews, school administrators had bigger plans for Wilson and hired him as an instructor. He taught pre-K through grade five for eight years.
"I always told my mother that when I started doing there what I could do here, I would move back home,” Wilson said. “I believe everything happens for a reason and, as luck would have it, my sister put a bug in someone’s ear and then I had a chance to meet with Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie, and six months later, I was here.
“It is great to be back home,” he said.
Wilson recently took some time to talk about the classes he teaches at Niagara Falls High School, his own experiences at LaSalle High School and Niagara University, and his ambitious plans for the future.
Q: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you know you wanted to pursue a life in theater?
A: I think from birth I knew I wanted to be an actor. It’s always been my passion. Maybe I was a performer in another life.
I really started getting into it with the LaSalle High School Drama Club. Leon Packman was the adviser. In my senior year, I was excited about my life, but afraid to leave the area and Niagara University had one of the most amazing theater programs in the country and it was right in my backyard! I applied and was accepted. I learned so much from Brother Augustine Towey, Tim Ward and Dr. Sharon Watkinson. My dance teacher was Beverly Fletcher. Naomi Neimanis was such an influence, too. Patricia Yanello was my voice teacher and Sharon Rork was my set design teacher.
And when I moved to New York, I had that NU family support there, too.
Q: What plans do you have for your high school students?
A: Kate Kerswell Muldoon retired and I was brought on to continue her program and expand it. She has been an amazing help to me. I teach three courses, Theater I, Theater II and Theater III. I believe the arts are a huge part of education and I’d love to get theater arts into all of our schools, starting on the elementary level and going all of the way up.
I am going to be proposing a new curriculum, starting with the history of theater for Theater I, talking about the different genres, comparing and contrasting, up to the contemporary theater of today, as well as the basics of acting. I’d like to talk about the huge impact theater has on everything, from architecture to fashion to personalities. Everyone is an actor, whether they know it or not.
Theater II would be the physical theater, like lighting and set design – the production part, as well as acting.
And Theater III would be internships for seniors because I believe they should be out in the community, working and learning from others, not just me. I’d like to partner with NU, my alma mater, on this. And, of course, acting would be sprinkled throughout all three classes.
Q: More opportunities have arisen in recent years on the local theater scene. Do you hope to get back into it?
A: Absolutely! It’s my passion. It’s really my spirit. I believe in lifelong learning and that the more I’m acting on stage, the more I’ll bring back to my students.
Q: There’s two topics we haven’t touched on yet. Your founding of Dendewil Productions and your publication of three books. Can you tell us about those?
A: I started a production company, Dendewil Productions, in 2005 with James Solomon Benn to create work for myself and for others. Our first production was on race relations, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. He directed some productions and I did some. One of my goals is to get it up and running again and do a stage production of one of the poetry books I’ve written, “My Void, My Voice.”
I wrote that in 2012. A friend suggested I write that first book and I just let my spirit speak. I didn’t plan a word of it. I wrote “Eros Dennis” in 2013. I also wrote “Morning Coffee Thoughts” in 2106. They are all self-published through an online company and available through www.lulu.com/DAWBooks.
I would post positive anecdotes on Facebook and people responded to it and told me they were waiting for it each day, so the book “Morning Coffee Thoughts” happened.
I believe we are all connected spiritually and we have a responsibility as human beings to warm each others’ spirits.
I want to convey how special I think everyone is. Everyone has gifts and so much to offer ... You don’t have to believe what I believe, we just have to love each other. Whether you’re male or female, gay or straight, black or white – our spirits need each other.