Acting the Part: Bill Cornforth … Teacher, Director, Mentor, Coach
Walking into the Wheeling Park High School theater department, one can usually find the speech and debate team talking to walls practicing for the next tournament, skits being performed on stage, rehearsal for the upcoming musical, students working diligently in the office, tech students pounding away on upcoming sets, and teachers and coaches offering words of wisdom to these students.
One teacher in particular who can be found is Bill Cornforth. Cornforth plays a role in each task mentioned above and has been doing so at WPHS for the past 32 years. After recently bringing home the 32nd consecutive win for the West Virginia Speech and Debate State Tournament on March 19, Cornforth did not receive a break. Cornforth and the rest of the department jumped into their next project by rehearsing diligently for “Little Shop of Horrors,” to be performed on May 3-7, as well as rehearsals for the show “Working” which will be performed on May 20 and 21.
Cornforth is currently the head speech coach, director of the spring musical and the moderator of the Park Players club at WPHS. He took over these positions eight years ago when Fran Schoolcraft retired after 25 years of leadership. Since he has taken over the position of head speech coach, the winning streak has continued, and the ticket sales on the musicals have not gone down.
However, Cornforth was not always interested in pursuing a teaching job in theater. In fact, he attended seminary in Massachusetts and upstate New York for two years. He then was sent to Wheeling by his religious director to live with the Marist Brothers who were working at Wheeling Catholic Central High School as he continued his studies at Wheeling College, now Wheeling Jesuit University. He spent two years here until realizing this was not the path he wanted to take.
“I left after four years [of schooling] because I did not think I was as personally religious as I should have been to be in a religious order,” Cornforth said.
His main reason for going to seminary was because of the respect he held for the Marist Brothers he had as teachers in high school. “I made it a goal to be every bit the teacher I would have been if I had stayed with the Marist Brothers,” Cornforth said. “I don’t know if I have. But I have tried.”
He continued his studies at Wheeling College and got his English degree. Here is where he found his love for theater. “I wanted to do something to get involved at campus. I was walking up a stairway going to a class and noticed a flyer on the wall advertising auditions for the college play,” Cornforth said. “I said to myself, ‘I can do that.'” He became the president of the drama club at Wheeling College his senior year and directed his first play, “The Bald Soprano.”
After graduating college, he became a teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School in Wheeling, where he taught every subject to fifth- through eighth-graders and also directed their variety show.
In the evenings, he would perform in plays at Towngate Theater under Hal O’Leary, whom he considered to be the best actor he had ever seen, Cornforth said. At this point, Cornforth was only 22.
After just a year and a half, he took a teaching job at the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville. He taught men on all different skill levels, and he eventually began an inmate drama club. His first play was “Twelve Angry Men,” which received a lot of publicity in Moundsville and neighboring cities for its irony, Cornforth said. He took the inmates to perform at Bethany College, Towngate Theatre and Wheeling College.
“I was shocked that the administration allowed us to tour, but we did,” Cornforth said. “I loved that job.”
The program stopped, and it was time for Cornforth to take his next step.
A friend from Towngate Theatre held the second theater position at WPHS and was taking a leave of absence, so he told Cornforth he should apply for it. He did, and he got it. His position included teaching English, directing the high school’s fall play and coaching the debate team, as well as teaching acting classes and debate classes, Cornforth said.
He received this job 32 years ago and has been at the high school ever since, with a promotion he received eight years ago.
After his first year at WPHS, he got married in 1980. He went on to have four children: Jennifer, Kristen, John and Ryan.
“Being a dad was the best role I have ever had,” Cornforth said.
At WPHS, he has directed 35 plays. “I don’t have a favorite, but there were some that have given me greater feelings, either because of the quality of the production, or the close relationships that developed. I thought ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ had both of those,” Cornforth said.
After coming home with a win from this year’s speech and debate state tournament, Cornforth got right to work for this year’s spring musical season.
“I am directing two musicals at once, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘Working.’ Sounds like a lot, but everyone is working hard to learn their parts fast The kids have been terrific in being prepared and creative. They make my job easier, and as always, fun,” Cornforth said.
Cornforth made note of all of the people giving up their time so that the two musicals can happen. Choreographer Anna Harsh, music directors Pat and Leslie Garrett, costume design and ticket manager Gail Adams, prop manager Lori Mathieu and publicity manager Josh Fromhart are putting in a lot of extra work.
“Everybody is going beyond their call of duty to pull this off,” Cornforth said.
Cornforth has taught hundreds and hundreds of students, and his teaching does not go unnoticed.
Many of his students continue to keep in touch with him and share that they have learned so much from him.
Sallie Gardner, a 2009 graduate from WPHS who was a student of Cornforth’s for three years, is now a 20-year-old public relations major at West Virginia University. “[From Cornforth], I learned that practice makes perfect and to be the best you have to want it,” Gardner said.
However, Gardner is not the only one. Also a 2009 graduate, Sarah Reddy had Cornforth for three years in high school as well. She is currently 20 years old and working on her bachelor’s degree in acting at WVU. Cornforth taught her to become a better performer, actor and speaker, Reddy said.
“He taught me a lot about hard work and positive thinking. He taught me a lot about kindness,” Reddy said. “He was always around to help me with anything going on in my life, in the same way a close friend would be there to listen and give advice.”
She said she can still hear Cornforth’s voice ringing in her head when she is working on something new saying, “What you need, what you want, what you think, what you feel.”
Aside from former students, Cornforth continues influencing his current students.
Sadie Crow, a senior at WPHS was the co-captain of this year’s state champion speech team and is also the lead in one of the upcoming musicals, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
She said Cornforth has taught her infinite amounts contributing to her acting career. “He has shown through his constant dedication to the Wheeling Park Speech and Theater program that hard work and commitment can have great benefits,” Crow said. “Furthermore, the compassion he shows to all of his students creates in himself a model that the students can look up to.”
Co-workers also take notice of Cornforth’s way with students. Gail Adams has been working with Cornforth in the theater department for seven years but has known him for many more. “I believe Mr. Cornforth is a teacher of the highest caliber. He teaches much more than the subject matter,” Adams said. “He teaches character and class and about achieving excellence.”
Cornforth continues on at WPHS and does not have any thoughts of retiring any time soon.
Through everything Cornforth has accomplished in his life, he said he knows he has been blessed with all of the opportunities that have been given to him. “I have had wonderful teaching positions and teaching situations and amazing students,” Cornforth said. “I am a very lucky guy.”