Roxane Caravan has been told that she’s intimidating. And not just by students.
Now in her 11th year as director of Lakewood Ranch High School’s drama department, Caravan, 50, is mostly unfazed by this reputation. In a sense, she says she gets why people feel this way.
She’s not bubbly or capricious. She’s organized to a fault, tidy and disciplined. Even the word she uses to describe her three-week summer theater camp is indicative of her work ethic: rigorous.
“I do have an air about me,” Caravan says. “I don’t sugarcoat anything. I have high expectations for myself and for others, which scares people, until they get to know me.”
However serious her personality or intense her teaching style, whatever Caravan is doing in the classroom and on stage is working. Lakewood Ranch High’s drama productions have won county, district and state awards.
In April, the school placed first at the Florida State Thespian Festival for their student-produced documentary theater piece, “(Ab) Normal,” which they created in conjunction with an after-school, artist-in-residency program with the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
“It was very heavy,” Caravan says of the play. “Definitely a show-up-with-a-box-of-tissues kind of play.”
Caravan’s classroom is a “Romper Room” of Crayola colors and theater posters, more inviting than some kindergarten classrooms, which is ironic given the teacher’s purported standoffish persona.
A small stage painted with show titles takes up the front half of the room. Tossed in the middle of the stage is an oversized beach ball covered in the flowery autographs of two-dozen summer camp students.
There are no desks in the classroom, other than Caravan’s, which sits facing, of all things, a sofa.
“It kind of freaks the kids out at first,” Caravan says. “But we’re always moving, so there’s no need for desks. If you were to walk in here at any time during the school year, you’d find a group of kids on stage, a group of kids in the dressing rooms, a group of kids in the hall … just kids in groups being creative.”
A native of Pottsville, Pa., Caravan grew up in a small town brimming with community theaters. She began performing as a child. The daughter of a sculptor, she says the arts were “infused into her existence.”
She studied ballet and spent her childhood touring with a musical theater troupe, performing at small playhouses in the Northeast. She seemed destined for the Broadway lights just two-and-half hours north of Pottsville, but by her second year at Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., she was tired of performing. Burned out at the age of 19.
“I saw that my talents were better suited for a different area,” Caravan says. “I saw myself as more of a director/producer/teacher, so I switched gears.”
A Lakewood Ranch resident, she didn’t start teaching until all four of her children were in school. Her youngest is now a junior at Lakewood Ranch High.
When she was hired as the drama department director, the school was only in its second year and the theater department was only a part-time program. Caravan grew the curriculum to include one full-length musical, two cabaret shows, one straight play and an end-of-the-year playwriting marathon.
The playwriting marathon is an enormous undertaking and Caravan’s favorite time of year. Last spring, the drama department produced 21 original student shows, more than double the average season for a professional theater company.
“We’ll be in here until 10 o’clock at night,” she says. “It’s just amazing what these kids produce.”
She smiles at the thought of it, belying her intimidating guise with just one simple remark: the idea that she not only doesn’t mind staying at work until 10 p.m., but that, in fact, she loves it — the mark of a true theater geek.
“For a lot of these kids, this place is home,” Caravan says. “It’s that small place where they feel protected, loved and accepted. A safe haven.”
She stops short, aware of the fact that she’s gone soft, though her sofa and signed beach ball gave that away 45 minutes ago.
“I’m not saying this room is an easy A,” Caravan says. “I’m just saying it’s a place where many kids feel comfortable.”
DID YOU KNOW?
• According to the theater students at Lakewood Ranch High, a friendly female ghost haunts the costume closet.
• Caravan loves to tap dance.
• Lakewood Ranch High’s theater department will be the first to workshop Canadian playwright Lindsay Price’s new full-length play.
• Caravan has never performed for a theater company in Sarasota, despite having lived here for 20 years.