Paul Tomei - Recipient of the 2018 Normadene Carpenter Award

by Placerville Newswire / Jun 17, 2018 / comments

[El Dorado Arts Council]

Every year, El Dorado Arts Council presents the Normadene Carpenter Award, celebrating significant contributions to the cultural life of the community. This year, in recognition of his passion and commitment as drama teacher at El Dorado High School, the Arts Council will honor educator Paul Tomei.

Long before Paul Tomei was the beloved drama teacher and lauded director of El Dorado High School’s Studio 81, he was a promising student in the same program. He entered El Dorado High School as a band student, but after taking a drama class, he underwent a “transformative experience.” He had found his calling. After graduating, he continued to study theatre at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and eventually embarked on a professional acting career in Los Angeles. Along the way, he worked a hodgepodge of odd jobs, ranging from delivering singing telegrams to building houses (which he credits for his set-building expertise). Throughout his time in LA, he only grew to appreciate his hometown more.

“I missed the grounded lifestyle of this area,” he says, referring in part to the skiing, backpacking, and fishing that he was deprived of in LA.

When the position of drama instructor at El Dorado High School opened up, Paul jumped at the opportunity, and the school jumped at the opportunity to have him. He returned to his hometown, but more importantly, he returned to Studio 81: “Stepping back into that room felt like being home again.”

He proceeded to build on the program that had first made him fall in love with theatre. Feeling a responsibility to uphold Studio 81’s tradition of “professionalism and respect for the craft,” Paul threw himself into his work, “almost to an unhealthy extent,” he laughs. The hard work paid off: Paul Tomei has imprinted himself indelibly on Studio 81, El Dorado High School, and the area’s artistic community as a whole by creating a new standard of excellence for high school theatre in El Dorado County. One of the most visible aspects of his legacy (and one of his proudest moments) was when the community came together to build Studio 81’s amphitheater. Still, it’s clear that he considers his real legacy to be his students. He speaks with obvious pride of his many former students who have found success in the performing arts. It appears that he succeeded at one of his major goals: “instilling in students a passion for being the best they can be; searching for excellence and not settling for anything less.”

Paul has learned alongside his students. He continually tries new educational techniques, challenging himself and his students to “take risks.” One of those risks was a project he is particularly proud of: a play called Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which was performed in downtown Placerville and involved extensive audience participation. “It brought in the whole downtown community,” he says. He knows that his students can handle challenging, experimental projects. “They rise to the occasion.” But he also recognizes that he has to provide as much assistance as he can. “There’s a balance. Teaching is more than the subject matter. You’re a counselor, a nutritionist, a shrink.”

As a teacher, Paul wants to help his students grow into good human beings, not just good artists. He believes that “theatre is a reflection of life,” and that participation in theatre can be used to provide a holistic education to his students. He lets them “fundamentally own their choices, and makes sure to let them experience real responsibility” for something as large and important as a theatrical production. He wants to create a space for them to have “mature, meaningful experiences.” At the root of this approach is Paul’s conviction that theatre can “pose and answer important questions.” He encourages his students to grapple with, and learn from, those questions. He knows that this is hard work, so he strives to give them a sense of community along the way. “The ensemble connection is important. It encourages a family unity.”

If there’s something that Paul is as passionate about as his students, it’s the larger Placerville community. “If I wasn’t teaching, I would still be doing something for this community,” he says. In particular, he wants to see Placerville grow into an inclusive, vibrant cultural hub. He envisions a future in which Placerville is “the place where all the crossroads converge.” He feels that he can contribute as an educator and artist by expanding access to and involvement in the arts. “Sometimes it feels like culture is only offered to a certain class,” he says. “Theatre shouldn’t be so removed. Theatre is for everyone.”

Paul believes that art can unify communities and remedy social ills, and he already sees progress in Placerville. He’s been especially impressed by those artists who have brought their passion and knowledge back to Placerville to employ it in service of the community. He wants to see it happen more. “Bring your thoughts and your ideals home. We have so much to offer right here.”

Paul Tomei once brought his passion and knowledge back home, and he has no regrets. In fact, he says that it’s been the most rewarding experience of his life. “I felt I had a lot to offer, but it was reciprocal. I felt like I was receiving therapy the whole time,” he laughs. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”