Corey Mitchell, a 20-year teacher who leads the musical theater program at Northwest School of the Arts, has won the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education out of more than 7,700 national submissions.
Mitchell gets $10,000 for his school, a flight for two to New York, a hotel room and two tickets to the Tony Awards ceremony and gala. He’ll get a shout-out from the stage during the ceremony, which will be televised Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.
“I am so excited for the kids!” was the first thing he said when reached by phone Thursday afternoon. “It has never been about me. It has been about the work, how the students put their hearts into the work at Northwest, and the other teachers who contribute so much to it.
“Sometimes we’re called an ‘inner-city’ school. I have never thought of the school or the program in that way. Whatever happens to them outside, when they come into this building, they step into a whole new world.”
Mitchell, who was raised in Statesville and attended the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has taught for 14 years at Northwest. He challenges students and audiences with the likes of “For Colored Girls ...,” “Rent” and “Hair.”
His efforts have already won him a 2007 award as N.C. Outstanding Theatre Arts Educator from the N.C. Theatre Conference. Former student Eva Noblezada earned the leading role in the new London production of “Miss Saigon.”
Former Northwest Principal Charles LaBorde, who hired Mitchell and co-directed half a dozen shows with him, recalls a guy who was “easy to get along with. He had the ability to talk to young people respectfully, especially young artists, and talk on their level. He treats them like he would a professional cast and trusts them to make some of the right choices.
“He also doesn’t make it seem like work; it’s always fun. I’ve been to a few dress rehearsals since I retired (in 2008), and they’re deceptive. They can appear disorganized – he’s anything but military in his approach – but they always seems to work. There’s a lot of love there.”
Mitchell, his colleagues and students appear in the 2015 documentary “Purple Dreams,” about Northwest’s production of “The Color Purple.” The school raised $171,000 to take 107 people – cast, crew, orchestra – and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago in Nebraska.
Charlotte-based GreyHawk Films, which shot that documentary, nominated Mitchell. So did former student James Kennedy and the school’s Theatre Arts Guild. Nominators had to submit a letter of no more than 500 words or a film lasting three minutes or less (along with supportive letters).
Judges from the American Theatre Wing, The Broadway League, Carnegie Mellon University and other industry leaders picked Mitchell, who said they didn’t explain why he won – “although (they) repeatedly mentioned the nominating film.”
Maybe judges were swayed by his “legendary” tests, in which he asks students to identify songs, shows, composers and performers in 18-second, needle-drop excerpts. Maybe they approved of his community involvement as an actor and director: He’s currently directing Davidson Community Players’ “Chicago,” which runs June 18-27.
Or maybe they just liked his philosophy.
“There are a lot of kids whose lives ... I’ve been able to advocate for and value when other people don’t,” he told The Associated Press. “When a kid recognizes that ... there is value in themselves, they start to apply it to other aspects of their lives.”
He elaborated Thursday by saying he’s not trying to create actors or technicians or even people who’ll stay in theater forever. He remembered a girl who had failed her midterm and been in danger of being booted from Northwest.
“I told her, ‘You’re dancing on the back row, but you’re dancing with all of your heart.’ She improved exponentially and managed to pass the class. More than that, she has walked out of this school with a feeling of accomplishment. It’s not so much what I teach in class as what they learn about character.”