Tony Award-winning CMS teacher retires, but his next act still helps theater students

·7 min read

The pandemic and racial reckoning of 2020 led the Northwest School of the Arts’ beloved musical theater teacher Corey Mitchell to take stock of his career.

“With George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, I stopped to re-evaluate what the current system looks like in the arts and in professional theater, particularly,” said Mitchell, of those racial justice cases. “My priorities have shifted.

“I am very, very grateful for my time at Northwest,” the 50-year-old said. “But I felt it was time.”

Time to retire, that is, after a 25-year teaching career. Twenty of those years have been at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Northwest School of the Arts magnet school on Beatties Ford Road.

It’s also time to give more students of color an opportunity to succeed in the theater, Mitchell said.

So he is launching the Theatre Gap Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at preparing aspiring bachelor of fine arts candidates during a “gap” year between high school and college for what he calls an arduous application and audition process.

Mitchell, the founder and artistic director of the nonprofit, has seen too many Black theater students forced to give up their dreams of getting a degree. “You don’t see a lot of Black and brown kids on stage — even when I travel to international theater festivals,” Mitchell said. “It’s almost like these dreams belong to other kids.”

Corey Mitchell, a Tony Award winning teacher at the Northwest School for the Arts, is retiring. Mitchell has started a nonprofit called the Theatre Act Initiative that helps students use a gap year to prepare for auditions to get into BFA programs.
Corey Mitchell, a Tony Award winning teacher at the Northwest School for the Arts, is retiring. Mitchell has started a nonprofit called the Theatre Act Initiative that helps students use a gap year to prepare for auditions to get into BFA programs.

‘An activity of privilege’

With most colleges, you get accepted and then decide what course of study to pursue. You might even change your major a few times.

“But, oh, my stars.” Mitchell said. “You can’t just wander into the theater and decide to be a theater major.”

Since so many students are vying for so few spots, many colleges now require what is called a pre-screen — “an audition before the audition,” Mitchell said. “There’s a video audition first, and then you may get an invitation for an in-person audition.”

If the school likes your audition tape enough to invite you to campus, you need a different repertoire to show off in person. The process is not just arduous; it’s expensive.

“Kids who come from privilege can rent studio space, get someone to professionally shoot their pre-screen, hire a dance teacher to choreograph … hire an audition coach,” he said. “So, you’ve got kids whose parents have put them through dance classes and piano and vocal lessons for 10, 12 years. And they’re competing against some kids with raw talent” but without those resources.

In this 2019 photo, Corey Mitchell offers guidance during a rehearsal for Theatre Charlotte’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” which he directed.
In this 2019 photo, Corey Mitchell offers guidance during a rehearsal for Theatre Charlotte’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” which he directed.

High school students who need to have a job to earn money for the family can’t attend after-school rehearsals, either.

“Getting into BFA programs has become … an activity of privilege,” he said. “The ability to fly to auditions, pay for pre-screens and application fees for multiple schools — all those things. And it disproportionately affects Black and brown kids. There’s a system that’s been set up to keep perpetuating itself, and it is leaving behind a lot of amazing artists.”

‘Adjusted my dreams’

Mitchell knows pursuing a career in the arts isn’t easy. People will tell you it doesn’t pay well, that it’s too competitive, rife with rejection.

“When I first said I wanted to be a theater major, my father laughed in my face,” said Mitchell, who grew up in Harmony. “He said, ‘Do you think you’re going to go to Hollywood and become Sammy Davis, Jr.?’ I adjusted my dreams according to that reaction, and that’s how I became an educator.”

“I don’t regret any of it,” he added. “I’ve had a wonderful career. My father passed away three years ago, and over the years, he told me time and again how proud he was of me.”

Corey Mitchell won the first Excellence in Theatre Education Award at the Tony Awards in 2015.
Corey Mitchell won the first Excellence in Theatre Education Award at the Tony Awards in 2015.

Mitchell doesn’t want students to adjust their dreams, though.

Theatre Gap Initiative will help students use a gap year to prepare for auditions for collegiate fine arts programs, which can be as competitive as the Ivy League, Mitchell said.

At the conclusion of the eight-month program, students will have a pre-screen video, something different lined up for an in-person audition and — most importantly, Mitchell said — access to college professors who have gotten to know them as artists.

In addition, they will have studied budgeting, time management, conflict resolution and more. “When they get to college, we don’t want them thrown in the deep end,” Mitchell said.

Next stop: Broadway

Mitchell was the winner of the inaugural Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education in 2015, after being nominated by former student Renée Rapp, who went on to play Regina George in “Mean Girls” on Broadway.

Rapp is far from the only Mitchell student to make it to the Great White Way.

Charlotte’s Reneé Rapp, who starred as Regina George in Broadway’s “Mean Girls” is on the advisory board for the Theatre Gap Initiative.
Charlotte’s Reneé Rapp, who starred as Regina George in Broadway’s “Mean Girls” is on the advisory board for the Theatre Gap Initiative.

Eva Noblezada, whom Mitchell taught from sixth through 12th grades, played the title role in the 2014 London and 2017 Broadway revivals of “Miss Saigon” — and earned a Tony Award nomination for it. She received another Tony nomination for her role in “Hadestown” in 2019.

Working to keep costs affordable

The nonprofit won’t be a one-man show.

“One of the best parts of this are my collaborators,” Mitchell said. They include Carlos Alexis Cruz from UNC Charlotte, who will teach movement, Corlis Hayes, who will teach public speaking and interviews, and Sidney Horton, who will teach acting.

Class will be held at the Georgia Tucker Fine Arts Hall on Central Piedmont Comunity College’s Levine Campus in Matthews. Theatre Gap Initiative students will be dual-enrolled at CPCC and can earn college or continuing education credit for a few classes.

Applications for the first group of students closed May 17.

The program runs from August until late March because, Mitchell said, “that’s the sweet spot for auditions. A lot of schools... send acceptance letters out the first and second weeks in March. Scholarship applications are generally due toward the end of February. That’s important; it doesn’t do any good to help get a kid accepted into a college they can’t pay for.”

Theatre Gap Initiative is not just for kids of color. “I’m not trying to exclude any kids,” Mitchell said. “But I want to make sure kids who have been typically left behind get a shot.”

Phillip Johnson-Richardson (left) was a student of Corey Mitchell’s at Northwest School of the Arts. Johnson-Richardson and Colby Lewis (also of Charlotte) appeared in the Chicago cast of “Hamilton.” Johnson-Richardson was understudy for the role of Hamilton and played the dual part of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.
Phillip Johnson-Richardson (left) was a student of Corey Mitchell’s at Northwest School of the Arts. Johnson-Richardson and Colby Lewis (also of Charlotte) appeared in the Chicago cast of “Hamilton.” Johnson-Richardson was understudy for the role of Hamilton and played the dual part of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.

So, he’s working to keep tuition affordable. “The tuition listed online is $6,300,” he said. “But that might as well be $20,000 for a lot of kids. That fee includes the trip to New York to the national unified auditions.

“There are ways of helping bring down those costs,” he added. “I’m looking for kids with drive. The money, we’ll figure out. I’m working with families on what that financial obligation will be. I will say: It can’t be free. If it didn’t cost you anything to get into it, it doesn’t cost you anything to walk away. To borrow a quote from ‘Hamilton,’ ‘When you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.”

Mitchell’s been in the game a long time. His retirement from CMS won’t change that.

Eva Noblezada, a former student of Corey Mitchell’s, was a 2017 Tony nominee for the lead in “Miss Saigon.”
Eva Noblezada, a former student of Corey Mitchell’s, was a 2017 Tony nominee for the lead in “Miss Saigon.”

His upcoming second act follows a particularly successful Act I — a period that included taking “The Color Purple” to the International Thespian Festival, hosting Carol Channing at Northwest School of the Arts for her one-woman show and having her do workshops for and perform with students, and sweeping The Blumeys regional high school theater awards with “Shrek.”

Northwest has been almost a Broadway incubator. Mitchell has helped turn students into stars.

Who will be the next Mitchell protégé to make it to Broadway? As Mitchell might say, “Oh, my stars.” It’ll be fun to find out.

Theatre Gap Initiative

Those interested in applying for fall 2022 should watch the Theatre Gap Initiative’s application page for next year’s deadlines at https://app.getacceptd.com/tgi.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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