Adrian Holguin knows when he's losing an audience.
Holguin has spent decades refining his approach in front of crowd, tweaking his routines and adjusting his timing to remain interesting in front of a group of people. It's important to hit the right marks; it's essential to not go too long or too short. Remaining interesting for an objective audience is all about finding the right balance.
"I am aware of when (a crowd) is with me or not," Holguin said. "I'm aware of when I'm hitting the right marks. I know if it's a great show or a terrible show."
It's a skill that Holguin has developed in two separate phases of his life: as a veteran storyteller, actor, improv performer and occasional stand-up comic, and as a math teacher with more than 25 years of experience in the classroom. Holguin, who's been a math teacher and coordinator at Smoky Hill High School since 1997, says that both disciplines draw on a similar, if unlikely, set of skills.
Whether he's trying to engage a class of freshmen in an Algebra I class or navigating a tough crowd at an improv comedy show, Holguin says a set of similar strengths serves him equally well. It's about persisting; it's about finding a way to move past any concerns of the ego and finding a way to reach the crowd.
"When I have a student who's agitated or triggered, the character of Mr. Holguin has helped me find a way not to take things personally. My performance background has helped to give me a shield … It's easier for me to be contemplative," Holguin said. "On the other hand, I know what it's like to deliver unwanted content. That's my life," he said, adding that his decades in the classroom have also given him a knack for winning over unruly audiences at a comedy club.
But Holguin doesn't necessarily see a great deal of distance between the analytical, supposedly left-brain skills associated with his role as a math teacher and the more artistic, theoretically right-brain tendencies that steer his work as a performer. Both skill sets are rooted in reason and problem-solving; both come from a place of creativity and joy.
What's more, both abilities have served as a way for Holguin to reach students across his 20-plus years at Smoky Hill, and both have helped him become an invaluable part of the school community.
In addition to his regular load teaching math classes and serving as department coordinator, Holguin has taken on roles in the school's theater department, directing school productions of "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Skin of Our Teeth," "Noises Off!" and others. This fall, he's leading the Smoky Hill production of "She Kills Monsters," a show rooted in the role-playing world of Dungeons and Dragons. Holguin has also played a formative role in Spontaneous Combustion, the school's improv troupe that served as the launching pad for Smoky Hill alum and accomplished stand-up comic/producer Bowen Yang, who is now based in Brooklyn. The troupe also hosts Holguin's daughter, Sadie, who joined as a sophomore this year.
This in-school work has come along with Holguin's regular gigs at venues across the Denver metro area, including a regular stint at the Impulse Theatre from 1997 to 2014 and guest appearances at the Bovine and Voodoo theaters. Holguin teaches improv classes at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during the summers, and has just launched a new season with Comedy Sportz, and improv troupe based at the Avenue Theater.
All of this stage work has come along with Holguin's career as a dedicated and invested math teacher and coordinator. He's taught all levels of the school's curriculum, from beginning algebra to advanced calculus classes.
It's a discipline that Holguin loves. Moreover, he gets to teach it at a school that holds a special place in his heart. Holguin has developed deep roots at Smoky Hill since he started teaching at the school in 1997 – it's where his daughter currently goes to school as a sophomore, and where his son, currently a seventh-grader, will eventually attend. Holguin is quick to point to the depth of Smoky Hill's diversity at all levels, and to the dedication of its staff in staying true to the school's core mission across the decades.
"Smoky Hill has done a good job of encouraging true diversity, and its results have held steady over the years," Holguin said. "This is my daughter's safe space … My son and I will graduate from this school at the same time," he added, referring to his planned retirement years down the line. "This school has given my kids a diverse view of what a principal looks like, of what a valedictorian looks like. They don't have a preconceived notion."
The school has also offered Holguin the freedom to draw on all his strengths from two different worlds. Whether he's guiding students through complex equations or helping them tackle a difficult scene, he's been able to forge some simple pieces of wisdom that apply to all disciplines.
"I tell all my students, 'Trust the process. Trust yourself,'" he said before pointing to a set of guidelines printed on a poster in his office in Smoky Hill's math department. The list was ostensibly printed for those working on math problems, but Holguin pointed out that the very first item could easily be applied to improv, stand-up comedy or, for that matter, any other challenge. "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them," he read.