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Arts & Culture

Former Teacher Corey Mitchell's Next Big Act: Helping Nontraditional Student Performers Get To College

Nick de la Canal
Students in the Theatre Gap Initiative program practice choreography inside the theater at CPCC's Levine Campus in Matthews. The program is the brainchild of local Tony-winning teacher Corey Mitchell.

Everyone has a dream. For years, Cley Butler's dream has been to perform on stage before an audience. He's been holding onto it ever since his first school play in middle school.

"I love it. I love it," he said. "It's like, everybody's got those pieces in themself that completes you, right? And this is one of those things for me."

But when it came time for him to start looking at colleges, and in particular, college theater programs, he started to feel overwhelmed.

Yes, he'd need to send in an application and an essay, but he also needed headshots and a resume. He needed to figure out how to get to auditions, pay audition fees, and even before that, film and send in audition tapes — called pre-screens — just for the chance to audition.

"I'm not a very organized person. I'm not a very — I don't know — studious person," he said, "so all of these websites with all of these deadlines, and all of these requirements. I mean, woah, right?"

Nick de la Canal
Northwest School of the Arts graduate Anastasia White rehearses a song with a voice instructor.

His mother, who's legally blind, was also overwhelmed, and they ended up missing many deadlines. When graduation time came, he wasn't accepted into the schools he really liked.

This story is familiar to Corey Mitchell, who has been teaching theater for 25 years. He's spent the last 20 of them at Charlotte's Northwest School of the Arts. He's also the recipient of the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education.

Every year, he had classes full of talented, passionate kids who wanted to pursue performance, but only a handful ever made it through the audition process and into a college program.

"If I had three kids that were going after it, I had a dozen kids that would be just as talented that I felt would be just as successful in a college program," Mitchell said.

Then, amid last year's protests over the death of George Floyd, and discussions on how to make theater more equitable, he had an idea: He'd create his own program that could provide training and college prep for talented but disadvantaged students, and help get them into those college BFA programs.

Mitchell retired from teaching in June, and he's now turning that dream of his into a reality at Central Piedmont Community College's Levine Campus in Matthews.

Nick de la Canal
Northwest School of the Arts graduate Rayna White sings for her classmates.

On a recent weekday, a handful of students kicked and shuffled across the stage inside the school's small theater. A choreographer shouted out the moves as the students' eyes focused behind their face masks.

This inaugural class is diverse and small — there are just nine students.

Not only are they getting training in dance, voice and acting, but they're also getting help with headshots, applications, financial aid forms and transportation to and from auditions.

None of them is paying for this seven-month gap year program, which Mitchell has dubbed the Theatre Gap Initiative. All are on scholarship, and Mitchell is funding the program entirely through grants and donations.

"I guess to quote Blanche from 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' I'm relying more on the kindness of strangers to make this happen," he joked.

During a break in the day, Northwest School of the Arts graduates Anastasia White and Rayna Allen sit outside snacking on Cheerios and Pop-Tarts.

White says she auditioned for a few colleges last year, but none accepted her. Allen says she sent in applications, but didn't follow through with auditions. She says the process was mentally draining.

They said one of the best parts of this program is simply the encouragement they get. White says it's helping her overcome one of her biggest challenges.

Nick de la Canal
Corey Mitchell provides encouragement to student Anastasia White.

"For me, it's a lot of strength and confidence," White said. "Because even though I've been doing a lot of stuff for so long, I still lack it significantly, sometimes."

Allen agrees. She said it's helping her better understand the audition process.

"Because we have these talks and discussions where we sit down and we're like — yes, it's a difficult process, but it's not like taking all of you," she said. "You are still you at the end of the day, and you can still get through it, and you can still do whatever you want to do, regardless of the results you receive."

Of course, Allen has every reason to be confident, because when she sings for her classmates inside the theater, her voice fills the room, and captivates her small audience.

Sometimes, that little nudge of encouragement is all that's needed, Mitchell said. And that goes for colleges too — he's reaching out and nudging them to make their application processes easier for more diverse, nontraditional students as well.

If all goes well, he hopes to continue this program next year, and help a new class of diverse students find their way from the wings to a spot center stage.

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