HE’S PLAYED ROLES in theatrical productions as diverse as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home. He can be found hosting trivia and bingo nights in Bangor area bars as his drag queen alter ego, Priscilla Poppycocks. He’s an in-demand actor, singer, and director for theater companies around Maine.
However, many people don’t know that Dominick Varney ’02, ’05G, ’15 C.A.S. is, by day, a tireless advocate for students and future educators at the University of Maine, in his role as assistant director of undergraduate academic advising and support services, in the College of Education and Human Development.
Varney, 43, found his twin passions of theater and academic advising at UMaine, thanks to some key mentors in both faculty and staff. Between those two arenas, and the third key element of his life — husband Dennis and four-year-old son C.J. — Varney balances a busy but fulfilling life in theater, teaching, and family.
“I think a third of me is a performer, a third of me is a teacher, and a third of me is a family man. If any one of those three things is imbalanced, the others suffer,” Varney said. “I try to keep all three things in balance, so my heart — and my schedule — is happy.”
Varney grew up in Winterport, the son of Carol and Clayton Varney, and the second youngest of four children, including elder brothers Simon ’90 and Nicholas and younger sister, Tabitha ’10, ’12G. As Varney tells it, he was not a theater kid growing up — rather, he only wanted to sing.
“I was a music nerd,” Varney said. “I couldn’t imagine getting up on stage and acting. But that would definitely change.”
While in high school at Hampden Academy, it didn’t take long for Varney to make the decision to go to UMaine — not only had his older brother, Simon, been a Black Bear, but his best friend and future co-star in various Penobscot Theatre Company productions, Brianne Beck ’02, was also set to attend.
At UMaine, Varney majored in communications, and quickly joined both the University Singers and the Maine Steiners, UMaine’s long-standing and beloved men’s a cappella singing group.
TWO THINGS WOULD change his life forever, and they both happened at UMaine. The first was encountering UMaine theater professor Sandra Hardy, the beloved educator and director who passed away in 2014.
As Varney recalls, it was Hardy who recognized there was a nascent actor within him, waiting to be unleashed.
“She was the first person to cast me. I auditioned for Cabaret because my mother was in Cabaret. Sandra wanted me to play Cliff. She believed in me,” he said. “Sandra was the kind of person who, if she knew you were dedicated to something, would help you and find ways for you to grow.”
Varney later went on to perform in UMaine productions ranging from the searing drama Bent, about the persecution of gay people in Nazi Germany, to the role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. By the time he graduated in 2002, Varney was an established actor, as well as singer.
Varney had already made up his mind to return to UMaine for grad school, and was prepared to start a communications M.A. program in fall 2003, with dreams of becoming a political speechwriter. The summer before, Varney took a job in the UMaine Admissions Department.
THE ADMISSIONS JOB, like his introduction to theatre, proved fortuitous, and changed the direction of his career. In that position, he learned not just how higher education admissions works, but also the deeply personal impact the experience of starting college can have on many students — especially first-generation college students.
“I just fell in love with the idea of making an impact on first-year students, and the way the campus community can change a person’s life,” Varney said. “That summer, I changed my graduate degree to higher education. I knew I had found my path.”
When he finished his degree in 2005, he spent the summer doing summer stock theater in New York. Just as the season ended on August 31 of that year, he got a call from Ethel Hill ’96, UMaine’s assistant dean of what is now called Explorations, Foundations, and Academic Recovery.
“She offered me a job as an academic adviser,” Varney said. “I took the job, and for the next 12 years, Ethel was my mentor. That really was the true beginning of my journey in higher ed.”
Varney flourished in the department, initially working in the Explorations program, which assists first-year students who are undecided about a major. Around 2009, however, he and his colleagues noticed a trend among those students, with two distinct populations emerging — first-year students who were merely undecided about their major, and first-year students who not only were undecided, but also were academically unprepared for college.
“We were treating these two populations similarly, when their needs are different,” Varney said. “So we created the Foundations program to work with that specific population, to help them get to where they needed to be.”
In 2010, Varney helped create a third program, Academic Recovery, a campus-wide program for first-year students who, after their first semester, emerged with a grade point average below 2.0. Those students would take a seminar, led by Varney and his colleagues, and would work with them on time management and other support programs to help them bring up their GPA.
“These are kids who, in some cases, get dumped into a world they are not familiar with, and they really struggle with adjusting to college life,” Varney said. “I was working with hundreds of students every semester, and we were seeing amazing results.”
Varney’s hard work and dedication did not go unnoticed. In 2012, he was recognized by the National Academic Advising Association as a top academic adviser, and UMaine named him one of its two outstanding professional employees for that year.
“I think for me, and for so many of my colleagues at UMaine, we’re in the business of helping to make good humans,” he said. “We get to help people learn how to make a difference in the world. That’s something that you just can’t put a price on.”
IN 2015, VARNEY moved on to a new position at UMaine, as assistant director of undergraduate academic advising and support services for the College of Education and Human Development. There, Varney plays an integral role in preparing the next generation of teachers for their careers.
“I work with students every single day who are making the decision to be a teacher,” he said. “Being a teacher is the hardest thing to fake. You have to love it and want it. I can’t think of an industry that has a bigger impact on people’s lives, other than maybe healthcare.”
The three parts of his life that make up the whole were challenged by the pandemic, as in-person theater was put on hold for nearly two years, and few worlds were changed as irrevocably by the pandemic as education.
“The students that are entering education as a field right now, they’ve lived through it all — both in person and remote,” he said. “We’re grappling with a shift in the whole system. It’s a fascinating and challenging time to be a teacher.”
As for theater, when the pandemic struck, Varney knew it would be quite a while before he could perform or direct with Penobscot Theatre or Winterport Open Stage, the community theater company he has worked with for nearly 20 years. So, he created a drag queen alter ego, Priscilla Poppycocks, a ribald and good-humored character who debuted as the host of a virtual talk show titled Dishin’ in Drag. The show, and the persona, quickly gained popularity in the community, and it wasn’t long before Varney found himself channeling his love of teaching once again.
“Schools started messaging me and asked, ‘Could you speak to our students about drag and being different, and what that means in your life?’ And I think I realized, yes, if I can help, yes. Little did I know, Priscilla was also helping me.”
Since the talk show episodes in 2021, Priscilla has hosted both virtual and in-person bingo and trivia events and performed an original one-woman show. She also imparts advice to her pandemic-weary audience: “Save a little love for yourself, don’t you dare give it all away.”
Most recently, Varney made his long-awaited return to live theater, with the role of Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher at Penobscot Theatre during its December 2022 run. And as campus life returned to normal for the fall 2022 semester, he finally found the three key parts of his life — theater, education, and family — back in balance. M