Ed­u­ca­tor talks teach­ing, art and life­long love of theater

‘I think of the theater as be­ing a lab­o­ra­tory’

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY PAGE LEGGETT Arts cor­re­spon­dent

This is part of an Ob­server se­ries about peo­ple who have had sig­nif­i­cant and sus­tained in­flu­ence on Char­lotte’s arts world.

Corey Mitchell might have be­come a farmer, in­stead of a Tony Award-win­ning theater teacher.

When he was grow­ing up, a self-de­scribed “coun­try boy” in Har­mony, N.C., his mother told him and younger sis­ter Alvera that she wasn’t go­ing to drive all over cre­ation tak­ing them to in­di­vid­ual ac­tiv­i­ties. They had to do the same ones. Young Corey wanted to be a Cub Scout, so Alvera had to be a Brownie. Alvera wanted to do 4-H, so Corey was 4-H-bound, too – with less than a heart­felt pas­sion for agri­cul­ture.

Then he turned 13, old enough to join the 4-H per­form­ing arts troupe — and there it was. Fer­tile soil for his imag­i­na­tion.

“I made friends from Asheville to Elizabeth City,” he said. “There were kids from 13 to 19 in the act­ing troupe. I was get­ting to work with and learn from peo­ple in col­lege. It was all very ex­cit­ing.”

And once Mitchell be­gan to show a tal­ent and love for theater, his mom sup­ported him. She drove him to pub­lic speak­ing con­tests. She got him to tal­ent shows and school plays. She was al­ways in the au­di­ence. His dad was of­ten there, too. (“He may have hated it, but he was al­ways there to sup­port me.”)

At North Ire­dell High, he be­came even more in­volved. He can still reel off the names of teach­ers he found “won­der­ful” – Gail Creech for choir, James Calabrese for band, Deb­bie Miller for theater. High school “was a won­der­fully af­firm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Now he helps re-cre­ate that ex­pe­ri­ence, as he’s done since 2001, for stu­dents at North­west School of the Arts.

(Alvera went into ed­u­ca­tion, too: She’s Dr. Alvera Le­sane now, and she’s as­so­ci­ate su­per­in­ten­dent for Ire­dell-Statesville Schools.)

Mitchell, said Charles LaBorde — NWSA’s for­mer prin­ci­pal and the per­son who brought Mitchell to Char­lotte — is a fa­ther fig­ure to his kids.

Some of the stu­dents he’s taught at North­west have gone on to big stages.

Eva Noblezada, whom he taught from sixth through 12th grades, earned a 2017 Tony nom­i­na­tion as the lead in “Miss Saigon” on Broad­way. (She had starred in the 2014 Lon­don re­vival, too, plucked while still a se­nior at NWSA). Chase McCall is in the 20th an­niver­sary tour of “Rent.” For­mer pupil Abby Cor­ri­gan was one of the leads in the first na­tional tour of Broad­way’s “Fun Home.” Mekhai Lee, who with Cor­ri­gan won twin 2014 Blumey awards as best actor and ac­tress in Char­lotte high-school mu­si­cals, went on to the na­tional tour of “The Color Pur­ple.” Phillip John­son-Richard­son un­der­stud­ied and rou­tinely ap­peared in the ti­tle role in “Hamil­ton” in Chicago, while Re­nee Rapp won the 2018 Blumey, ad­vanced to the na­tional

fi­nal in New York, then brought home that tro­phy, too.

TEACHER, MEN­TOR, CHEER­LEADER

“Mr. Mitchell has longterm relationships with for­mer stu­dents who are enor­mously suc­cess­ful in the per­form­ing arts,” said for­mer stu­dent James Kennedy, 27, now a New York-based free­lance play­wright/com­poser and one of the peo­ple who nom­i­nated Mitchell for the first-ever Tony for theater ed­u­ca­tion that he won, in 2015. “But he has equally strong relationships with stu­dents who didn’t go into the per­form­ing arts. He con­nects with all his stu­dents re­gard­less of the path they choose.”

Linda Franzese, who team-taught mu­si­cal theater with Mitchell (“he did theater; I did mu­sic”) at NWSA for nearly a decade, agreed. “Corey wants the best for all his stu­dents. You could see it in the way he cast some of his shows. He might choose a stu­dent who wasn’t at the top of his game yet. He be­lieves ev­ery­one de­serves a chance.”

Mitchell, reached by phone in late Jan­uary, had just hung up with Kennedy. They’d been dis­cussing “Re­lapse,” the addiction-themed opera Kennedy co-wrote for the Amer­i­can Opera Ini­tia­tive at the Kennedy Cen­ter.

“James is my mini-me,” Mitchell said, care­fully enun­ci­at­ing, at boom­ing theater vol­ume. “Ex­cept that he’s about a foot taller.” He laughed a while about that line; he’s known for that joy­ous laugh. “Once he gets tick­led, he can’t stop,” LaBorde said.

Kennedy said he doesn’t just call his for­mer teacher to dis­cuss his career highs. They talk ev­ery cou­ple of weeks. “Mr. Mitchell started teach­ing me when I was 12,” Kennedy said. “I’m in touch with some of my col­lege pro­fes­sors, too, but I ar­rived in their class­rooms more fully formed. Mr. Mitchell had di­rect in­volve­ment in help­ing me grow up.

“He’s with me ev­ery step of the way. Right from the ger­mi­na­tion of an idea, he’s the one to say, ‘Go for it. You have to do it.’ He never lets me off the hook.”

When Kennedy was ac­cepted to the Amer­i­can Opera Ini­tia­tive – which aims to en­cour­age emerg­ing com­posers and li­bret­tists – he couldn’t be­lieve it. “I’m al­ways hus­tling, al­ways push­ing,” he said. “But with this, I sent in 30 pages of my writ­ing and was ac­cepted. I didn’t feel I de­served this, but Mr. Mitchell said, ‘You got this be­cause you’re a good writer. You be­long in that room.’ His be­lief and op­ti­mism in me have never changed.”

BE­YOND THE CLASS­ROOM

Mitchell’s in­flu­ence goes be­yond NWSA – and not just be­cause his stu­dents have gone on to na­tional fame. He has di­rected through­out the area, in­clud­ing at David­son Com­mu­nity Play­ers (“Chicago”), CPCC Sum­mer The­atre (“Sis­ter Act”) and The­atre Char­lotte, where he’s di­rected “Mem­phis,” “Aida,” “Har­vey” and more.

It’s im­por­tant to him to do com­mu­nity theater, he said: “Art and theater are com­mu­nal ef­forts. If you’re only a part of your own lit­tle world you’ve cre­ated, it’s sort of like a snake eat­ing its own tail. I want to be part of Char­lotte’s larger arts com­mu­nity.”

He’s cur­rently di­rect­ing “Ain’t Mis­be­havin’ ,” the Fats Waller mu­si­cal re­vue that runs through Feb. 17 at The­atre Char­lotte.

It’s a show he’s waited a long time to put his im­print on — since the early ’90s, to be spe­cific, when a shot at star­ring (as An­dre) was sunk by cir­cum­stance. He’d got­ten a job as an en­ter­tainer on a cruise ship, and been cast by Bhetty Wal­dron, then di­rec­tor of Quest The­atre & In­sti­tute in West Palm Beach..

“I stud­ied ev­ery nu­ance of that show. I knew it back­wards and for­ward,” he said. But two weeks be­fore open­ing, his con­tract was can­celled. (Wal­dron told him an ac­coun­tant had bilked her, he said.)

So this is his first time re­vis­it­ing the mu­si­cal he knew by heart — and he’s di­rect­ing two for­mer stu­dents: Ke­ston Steele and Nonye Obichere. Back in 2012, Steele played Celie in “The Color Pur­ple,” a pro­duc­tion that was broke ground in sev­eral ways for NWSA.

‘PUR­PLE DREAMS’

NWSA was the first high school per­mit­ted to per­form the Broad­way mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prizewin­ning novel. Robin Grey of Char­lotte’s GreyHawk Films, and Joanne Hock, her pro­duc­ing part­ner, set out to doc­u­ment the process.

What they crafted — a tale of teens grap­pling not only with the plot’s ma­ture themes but also with some per­sonal tragedies among them, and find­ing hope in art — be­came “Pur­ple Dreams,” an award-win­ning film that spanned au­di­tions, re­hearsals and pro­duc­tion.

Grey and Hock be­gan mak­ing the film festival cir­cuit rounds in 2017, and Mitchell would of­ten ac­com­pany them. “He was a rock star ev­ery­where we went,” Grey said. “The kids mobbed him.”

Its trailer of­fers a sense of why, from a Mitchell voiceover — ”This,” he tells the viewer, “is what ‘Glee’ looks like in real life” — to the scene in which he tells the cast they’ve been ac­cepted to an in­ter­na­tional thes­pian festival. Scream­ing en­thu­si­asm en­sues.

Kennedy, a NWSA alum, said a theater class­room is dif­fer­ent from any other. “Teach­ers are ask­ing for so much vul­ner­a­bil­ity from stu­dents. We need to draw on per­sonal life ex­pe­ri­ence. But Mr. Mitchell cre­ated a brave space for us to ex­plore. He was cap­tain­ing the ship in a safe, sup­port­ive way with­out go­ing to dan­ger­ous places. That skill is unique to theater teach­ers.”

CUL­TI­VAT­ING EM­PA­THY

What dis­tin­guishes Mitchell as a di­rec­tor?

De­tail, said Franzese, Mitchell’s for­mer coteacher. “When he di­rects, he wants ev­ery minute de­tail to be per­fect. The right sash has to be on a dress, the right hairdo has to be on ev­ery char­ac­ter. Even at dress re­hearsal, Corey is still mak­ing lit­tle ad­just­ments. He wants vis­ual per­fec­tion.”

Range, said LaBorde. “He can do such a big va­ri­ety. ‘Pip­pin’ was dance-fo­cused, ‘For­ever Plaid’ is crazy and ‘Smoke on the Moun­tain’ is a coun­try/gospel mu­si­cal set in the moun­tains.”

He re­spects the speci­ficity, the pos­si­bil­i­ties, of each. “His di­rect­ing de­ci­sions are driven by the con­tent of the show.” Mitchell agreed. “My mother says she sees ‘me’ in all the work I di­rect,” he said. “But truly, hon­estly – and there may be some­one who reads this who says, ‘Lies! All lies!’ – I try to ap­proach each piece in­di­vid­u­ally. I look at the mer­its of each show.”

Each show has some­thing to teach his stu­dents. “There’s never go­ing to be a state test for theater,” he said. “I don’t teach theater be­cause I want to give a test on Act III, Scene IV of ‘The Tam­ing of the Shrew.’ I teach be­cause I want stu­dents to see the col­lec­tive­ness of our hu­man­ness.” His theater stu­dents be­come more em­pa­thetic hu­mans be­cause they have to “con­nect with the char­ac­ters they play,” he said. “It might be a fic­tional per­son from 300 years ago or some­one their age who lived just three years ago -- but in New York City.”

So Corey Mitchell did end up plant­ing seeds.

REUBEN BLOOM

In re­hearsal at The­atre Char­lotte’s “Ain’t Mis­be­havin’,” which he is di­rect­ing, Corey Mitchell talks about his long­time career teach­ing theater at North­west School of the Arts in Char­lotte.

DIEDRA LAIRD [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Both the 2014 Blumey win­ners for lead act­ing were stu­dents of Mitchell’s: Mekhai Lee, left, and Abby Cor­ri­gan.

MATT DUN­HAM AP

Eva Noblezada, also a for­mer Mitchell stu­dent, was a 2017 Tony nom­i­nee for the lead in “Miss Saigon.” (She too was a Blumey win­ner from North­west, in 2013.)

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