Bal­anc­ing act

A Tony’s nod for a teacher whose ded­i­ca­tion stops at noth­ing – even cancer.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By HEIDI STEVENS

ERICA Heil­mann missed the email telling her she was be­ing hon­oured at the Tony Awards.

Heil­mann teaches theatre at Thornton Frac­tional South High School in Lans­ing, Illi­nois, the United States, and June 1 was the last day of school.

On June 5, emails went out to 20 teach­ers around the coun­try in­form­ing them they’d earned hon­ourable men­tions for the Tonys’ ex­cel­lence in theatre ed­u­ca­tion award.

“They sent it to my work email,” Heil­mann said. “School was out. I don’t check my work email.”

But her hus­band, for­mer Oak Lawn mayor David Heil­mann, had a hunch. He spent June 11 – the night of the Tonys – scour­ing the awards site for a men­tion of his wife, whose im­pact, he knew, was award-wor­thy.

Around 9 pm, he found her name – the only one from Illi­nois – on a list of teach­ers granted hon­ourable men­tions for demon­strat­ing mon­u­men­tal im­pact on the lives of stu­dents and em­body­ing the high­est stan­dards of the pro­fes­sion. Judges from the Amer­i­can Theatre Wing, the Broad­way League and Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity made the se­lec­tions.

Heil­mann has spent the past two decades nudg­ing kids to­ward a love of theatre, both at T.F. South and in Oak Lawn, Illi­nois, where she di­rects the park district’s Broad­way Ju­nior pro­gramme for kids ages six to 14.

Three of her own four kids (ages six, 10, 12, and 15) are in the sum­mer camp. In July, the campers are per­form­ing Ok­la­homa.

“She never stops,” said Corinne Kalebich, who grew up per­form­ing at Broad­way Ju­nior and now co-di­rects. “To say she’s ded­i­cated is an un­der­state­ment.”

When Heil­mann’s youngest daugh­ter was 10 days old, Heil­mann, 42, was di­ag­nosed with thy­moma, a dis­ease in which cancer cells form on the outside sur­face of the thy­mus gland.

“The doc­tor thought it was just heart­burn for a long time,” Heil­mann said. “Af­ter my daugh­ter was born, I went in for a scan, and they found a mass in the cen­tre of my chest.”

She went through chemo­ther­apy and ra­di­a­tion, fol­lowed by a full ster­notomy to re­move the tu­mour, fol­lowed by more chemo­ther­apy and ra­di­a­tion. A year and a half later, the cancer re­turned.

Heil­mann trav­els to In­di­anapo­lis ev­ery Wed­nes­day to see a thy­moma spe­cial­ist and re­ceive chemo­ther­apy, which is about the only in­tru­sion she’ll grant the dis­ease.

“For our teen show, we were do­ing Cats, and she was do­ing cos­tume checks from the hos­pi­tal,” Kalebich said, “FaceTim­ing the kids to make sure ev­ery­thing looked OK.”

She sched­uled one of her surg­eries around An­nie.

“The doc­tor prob­a­bly thought I was com­pletely in­sane,” Heil­mann said.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m di­rect­ing An­nie ,andI want to be there for the kids, and I don’t want them to be worried about me. Can we just sched­ule it a week later? I mean, the cancer’s not go­ing any­where.’”

One of Heil­mann’s T.F. South stu­dents nom­i­nated her for the Tony Award. The theatre stu­dents worked with as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal Becky Szuba and some Broad­way Ju­nior folks to pull to­gether a three-minute nom­i­nat­ing video.

“These kids are grow­ing up in a crazy world,” Heil­mann says in the video. “Now, more than ever, they need to re­alise the power theatre has to bring peo­ple to­gether.”

Heil­mann, who grew up near Mid­way Air­port, in Chicago, got hooked on theatre in sixth grade, when her school per­formed The King And I. She at­tended Queen of Peace High School in Bur­bank, where she says she took any part she could get – on­stage or back­stage.

“I wanted to be my high school drama teacher,” she said. “I like to eat, and I like to go shop­ping, so I never wanted to be the starv­ing artist on Broad­way. I wanted to teach.”

(Thomas Wit­ting was her drama teacher. He now chairs the fine arts depart­ment at Reavis High School in Bur­bank, Illi­nois.)

Heil­mann earned a de­gree in theatre ed­u­ca­tion from Illi­nois State Univer­sity and tried out for Oak Lawn’s com­mu­nity pro­duc­tion of West Side Story – her favourite mu­si­cal — af­ter grad­u­a­tion. She met her hus­band at the theatre the fol­low­ing sum­mer. “Erica is some­one who has turned to the theatre for strength,” David Heilm­man told me, “while si­mul­ta­ne­ously show­ing ev­ery stu­dent, ev­ery young child, ev­ery teen what it means to give it all in theatre and life.”

Heil­mann says she was floored when she learned about the Tony hon­ourable men­tion.

She and the Broad­way Ju­nior kids and staff gath­ered at a pub af­ter re­hearsal June 11, and the award, she said, was the fur­thest thing from her mind.

“All the other peo­ple are watch­ing hockey, like most nor­mal sports bars, and then the weird theatre peo­ple come in and go, ‘Turn the Tonys up!’, she said. “We watched the ma­jor­ity of it, and about 9pm, we de­cided it was time to go home.”

That’s when her hus­band came run­ning into the liv­ing room car­ry­ing a lap­top screen with her name in (LCD) lights. He posted the news on Face­book, and the notes be­gan flood­ing in. Heil­mann didn’t miss those emails. “The out­pour­ing of love – as a teacher, that can keep you go­ing for another 20 years,” she said.“To hear you’ve made a difference, that means more to me than any­thing.”

Heil­mann fig­ures this won’t be her last brush with the Tonys.

“I’m hop­ing one day to be there watch­ing a stu­dent re­ceive an award,” she said. “That would be the great­est ac­com­plish­ment, to be able to sit there and go, ‘That’s my kid! I taught that kid!’ That would be the coolest thing. Some­day.”


Heil­mann working with stu­dents at Broad­way Jr. day camp at Oak Lawn Com­mu­nity Theatre in Illi­nois. She has spent the past two decades nudg­ing chil­dren to­ward a love of theatre.

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