Tony-Winning Charlotte Teacher Has Plan To Boost Diversity In Theater Arts
Corey Mitchell’s seen a lot in his 25 years of teaching.
He won the first-ever Tony Award for excellence in theater education. He’s helped countless young students in the Charlotte area learn how to find their creative voices and express themselves on stage. He’s watched many of them nail auditions, grab spots in college programs and launch successful careers — some even landing on Broadway.
But there’s something else Mitchell’s seen, too: Some students’ dreams being derailed by the complexities of navigating the system. He noticed it was the students with more resources — say, the ability to hop on a flight any given weekend for an audition — who generally have better luck.
“Those tended to be the kids who were able to get into BFA programs and able to move through and end up transitioning into a career,” Mitchell said this week. “And generally speaking, those kids, for the most part, were not my African American students, who in many cases were just as talented but didn't have the same opportunities.”
Mitchell aims to do something about it. In June, he’s retiring from Charlotte’s Northwest School for the Arts, where he’s been for the last 20 years, and launching the nonprofit Theatre Gap Initiative, a college-prep program to help students of color prepare for and get accepted into Bachelor of Fine Arts programs in theater and acting.
The program, which is accepting applications as of Thursday, has room for 24 students fresh out of high school who will spend seven months in one-on-one training — not just in acting and performance but also putting together auditions and strong college applications. He notes that one roadblock for students can be family members and support systems dismissing theater as a bad career path — something he hopes the practical experience of the gap year approach can address as it also includes training in things like life skills, budgeting and public speaking.
“We’re going to, as I put it, ‘build the actor’s toolbox,’” Mitchell said.
Of course, getting accepted into a program is only one piece of the puzzle. Mitchell also wants to help students stay enrolled. As TGI grows, he hopes the program can gather information about the ins and outs of different BFA programs in a way that opens up a dialogue that not only helps students navigate the process but leads to the program, themselves, diversifying.
“I want to help create a network for BIPOC students in a university setting,” Mitchell said.
As an example, he pointed out that Howard University is the only historically Black college or university with a specific musical theater BFA program.
“What happens is we send BIPOC students to predominantly white institutions and then there is that feeling of isolation that comes with that,” Mitchell said.
And he thinks there’s a growing appetite for change right now, especially amid the reckoning on systemic racism in the United States. Like many industries, the theater world was faced with calls for change. Accountability groups like We See You White American Theatre and Black Theatre United formed, pushing for a more equitable industry.
But those efforts are focused largely on professionals. And Mitchell knows that getting people into the industry pipeline starts earlier — in high school.
“The thing that everyone seems to agree on is expanding the pie, if you will,” Mitchell said. “What should matter is that students have talent and they have the ability to tell an interesting story. And those are the things that I think are valuable because the arts are the things that seem to last and that we judge and understand cultures by -- the art that is produced. And so we need more voices helping to reflect what our culture is and to understand the intricacies of what this country is.”
Mitchell says there’s already been a lot of interest in his program. And TGI has already recruited some notable advisory board members, including Aunjanue Ellis, Billy Porter and Charles Randolph-Wright, among others.
“If you are in the arts and you are a person of color, you understand, especially, what that struggle looks like,” he said.
The program is being done in conjunction with Central Piedmont Community College. Applying to TGI is free, and the program itself runs $6,300. Applications are due by May 17, and the first cohort of students will start in August. Mitchell says it’s not just limited to students in the Charlotte area and that the program will try to find host families for anyone who’s accepted but doesn’t already live here.
As for Mitchell, himself, he’ll miss teaching at Northwest, but he says he’s ready for the new challenge.
“I was worried that I was becoming an institution,” Mitchell said. “And the thing about institutions is that they are difficult to adapt and to change. And when you can't adapt and change, you don't grow. And I was very interested in growing.”