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Apr 2, 2021

Michele Hillen-Noufer Takes a Lifetime of Theatre Skills to Sacramento-Area Students

Actress, educator and mother of twin 13-year-old daughters—i.e., busy

By Ed Goldman

Michele Hillen-Noufer, founding executive director of the NorCal School of the Arts, tells me she loves what she’s doing so much that she doesn’t miss acting. I’m not sure acting doesn’t miss her, however. She had a dramatic range and projected an incandescent beauty on stage that were rare and compelling—never more in evidence (for me, anyway) than when she played the tragic Desdemona in a production of “Othello” at the Sacramento Theatre Company some years ago. A small, slender woman with the face and grace of a ballerina, she was all you watched—even in other shows that mandated she be a humble ensemble player.

Who better than a versatile actress and educator to create a school that practices social-emotional learning, combining the lessons she accrued in her quarter-century of acting, directing and choreographing, with the experience she gained creating and/or enhancing youth programs at the Sacramento Theatre Company for 15 years? 

Edgy Cartoon

Michele Hillen-Noufer photo by Brian Offidani

“I think I’m more useful teaching and advocating for the arts,” says Hillen-Noufer, whose school is currently accepting applications for summer camp, a series of one-week programs (11 in all) that begins in June. The sessions, which “will be in-person but employ social distancing,” will be held at Riverside United Methodist Church at 803 Vallejo Way in Sacramento’s leafy Land Park community. “We’ll be teaching acting for TV and stage, dance, music and stage combat,” she reports. (The latter was one of my faves in the years I spent acting in student and professional theatre. The most fun I had was being taught to fence, by a swordfight specialist, without absorbing humiliating nicks and cuts. I wish I’d had a similarly expert shaving specialist back then.)

The attendance will be capped so if you have a budding performer or otherwise creative kid or grandkid on hand, you may want to jump on enrolling.

Hillen-Noufer holds a master’s degree in education from Lesley University. “It’s a private university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they do cohorts around the country,” she says. “I was in a cohort with teachers from Twin Rivers Unified School District and other neighboring districts. Classes took place at the Sacramento County Office of Education on weekends—so it was like a semi-online program but we met once a month” for about three years. 

A member of the Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, she keeps her skills current by teaching theatre arts in schools, including arts integration opportunities for under-served students (at Title I schools) and those with “learning differences.” This is the new and welcome term for students who used to be characterized as having “learning disabilities,” whereas they simply might have learned at a different pace, or needed a modified setting in which to do so, than mainstream kids. Many creative people grow up with these differences, and it’s heartening to know it’s becoming less and less under a shadow. She also teaches workshops and professional development courses for conferences and educators’ “in-services” (those mysterious-to-parents sessions when teachers instead of the students are marked absent).

Hillen-Noufer also stays up on the arts scene as a founding board member of the Sacramento Alliance for Regional Arts, which advocates for arts programs in the capital area.

She met her husband, Marty Noufer, whom she’s been with for 17 years, in New York City. Noufer is the school’s board chair, but spends most of his work week as a marketing pro for Intel. He’s also a talented film-maker, and you can see a short film he did, “The Chinese Lesson”—featuring the couple’s twin 13-year-old girls, Millie and Maya, both of whom speak Chinese fluently, and their mom, too—here.

To date, NorCal School of the Arts has reached about 1,700 students in the Sacramento region and engaged more than 70 teachers. When you consider that the program will celebrate only its first anniversary this summer, this is pretty impressive. In fact, it’s what they call in theatre a show-stopper.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).