SAN JOSE -- Drama teacher Steve Dini sits in a near-empty Pioneer High theater, taking notes but quiet and serene as his cast runs through a dress rehearsal of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

That doesn't mean everything is perfect for Thursday's opening. Dini, 67, likens his thoughts to a paddling duck: churning furiously below while outwardly calm. He'll take each of the 11 actors aside later to offer advice. "I don't like to criticize kids in front of other kids," he said later. "Yelling at kids is not effective,"

Steinbeck's classic parable of friendship and loss is the 100th high school production in Dini's 23 years of directing. But his accomplishments are measured by far more than musicals and plays staged. Dini is in the business of shaping the talent, outlook, attitude and confidence of generations of students in San Jose.

Being in theater "was the most fun I had in school," said Greg McFall, 37, an alumnus of Dini's first production, "Bye Bye Birdie." Even though McFall said he was "a terrible, terrible actor," he learned to be accountable, to take art seriously and to collaborate. He's working on his master's in musical composition. Dini, he said, "enabled us to be wild in a supervised manner."

That combination remains. "He's pretty laid back," said senior Joshua Esquivel, who plays the gentle giant Lennie. "But he wants everything perfect."

Dini, a former TV personality and weatherman, had performed at San Jose City College and studied radio, TV and film at San Jose State. He got bitten by the directing bug when Pioneer's then-Principal Sal Cesario talked him into producing a spring musical in 1991. He continued with productions every year.

When KICU-TV laid him off in 1999, Dini got an emergency teaching credential and began full time at Pioneer.

Soon, in contrast to the first year when he had to pay his son to sing on stage, theater become a cool thing to do -- even for the jocks, the goof-offs and the silent guys who slouched in the back of classrooms.

Productions multiplied. The advanced drama class now stages weekly performances at elementary schools; this fall it's "Winnie The Pooh."

Dini said he's energized by working with kids, who "surprise people with what they can do."

For the spring musical, Dini takes all comers; he doesn't cut anyone. The thought of performing terrifies most teens, but at Pioneer "they feel they can be vulnerable and make mistakes," Dini said, "and their fellow students will pick them up when they fall and go back on stage."

Students like that Dini treats them as adults.

As a result, "the kids really respect him," said parent volunteer Jan Vincent, who sews costumes and manages the theater wardrobe.

"He was enthusiastic, funny and with this loud piercing baritone voice, it was easy for him to get our attention," said another alumnus, Tom Jackson, 36. "He had that theatrical sensibility. He laughed at our jokes."

Jackson, now a songwriter, met McFall and Alan Chang, the musical director for singer Michael Buble, while performing in Pioneer drama productions.

Dini holds high expectations for the kids and gets the best out of them, said Stephen McMahon, San Jose Unified's chief business officer and a former Pioneer math teacher. Furthermore, McMahon said, Dini's drama program has boosted the image and enrollment of Pioneer. Once a school with fewer than 1,000 students, Pioneer now has 1,625 students. A number of them, such as senior Daniel Quint, who plays a dispirited ranch hand in "Mice," take advantage of a district choice program and opt to attend Pioneer to pursue theater. Over the years, Dini also has directed plays at Willow Glen, Leland, Saratoga and Notre Dame high schools, sometimes overlapping with Pioneer plays.

It's a sometimes grueling schedule, teaching five classes then rehearsing three hours four nights a week. Dini's wife Susan, who works in the Saratoga High office, helps with choreography.

Steve Dini also performs in the annual fundraising show by alumni -- known as the Glue Factory, where former Mustangs (the school mascot) gather.

No wonder parents of freshmen tell Dini, "You can retire, but not till my child graduates."

At 67, he does think about his future. "I don't know what I would do at home," he said. Teaching theater, he said, "is my breath; it's my air."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.

"Of Mice And Men"
Pioneer High School Drama will present John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Pioneer Performing Arts Center, 1290 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose. Tickets at the door only are $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.