ON JUNE 24, the Educational Theatre Association’s 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival received a virtual visit from Tony Award-winning musical theatre lyricist, composer, and Thespian alum Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked). Schwartz performed and answered questions posed by student members of the International Thespian Society in an event hosted by actor Megan Hilty, who played Glinda in Broadway’s Wicked.

But the star of the show was Corey Mitchell, theatre director at Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, who discovered he was the inaugural winner of the annual Stephen Schwartz Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Award in a surprise Zoom call.

Stephen Schwartz

Photo of Stephen Schwartz by Nathan Johnson.

Mitchell and Schwartz were joined by two award judges, composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Addams FamilyBig Fish), and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (RagtimeOnce on this IslandSeussical). Lippa, also a Thespian alum, started his career not in theatre but as a middle school music teacher in New York City. Ahrens said of the theatre teachers who produce her shows, “I have never met a more passionate, dedicated, courageous group of people.”

Mitchell was “absolutely gobsmacked” to hear the news from people who wrote many of the shows he’s directed or performed over the years. He in turn, recognized theatre teachers everywhere.

“It’s a tremendous honor to accept this on the behalf of so many teachers out there, because this is a crazy year, but somehow all of my theatre teacher friends are persevering through it and figuring out a way to make this happen even more,” said Mitchell. “From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of everybody that I work with now and that I’ve worked with in the past, thank you so much!”

The award, presented by EdTA and The ASCAP Foundation, recognizes the highest level of achievement for a high school or middle school musical theatre teacher. It comes with a $5,000 cash prize funded by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation made in honor of Stephen Schwartz.

In 2015, Mitchell also received the inaugural Excellence in Theatre Education Tony Award. Throughout his 25-year teaching career, he’s earned numerous other honors. But for him, as for theatre teachers everywhere, the greatest accolades are his students’ successes.

Luckily, there have been plenty of those too.

Northwest School of the Arts theatre teacher Corey Mitchell with his students.
Northwest School of the Arts theatre teacher Corey Mitchell with his students. Photo courtesy of Corey Mitchell.

“Some people ask if there is something in the water in Charlotte that has produced so many talented performers, but we all know it is because of Mr. Mitchell,” wrote Reneé Rapp, star of Mean Girls on Broadway, in nominating her former teacher. She noted other former students of Mitchell’s working on Broadway, including Eva Noblezada, two-time Tony Award nominee and Grammy winner for Hadestown.

“He challenged us all to bring our best, never settle, and strive to keep getting better,” said Rapp. “He helped us understand not only the theatre, but also the importance of our relationships in general, and he explained both were important skills regardless of the career path we chose.”

This ability to nurture the best led to Mitchell’s Thespian Troupe 5634 earning an invitation to present A Chorus Line on the main stage of this year’s festival. The troupe previously performed The Color Purple on the 2013 ITF main stage, an experience memorialized in the documentary Purple Dreams. A screening of that film opened the 2018 event.

Mitchell inspires excellence by earning students’ trust, according to playwright-composer-director James Kennedy. In his nomination letter, Kennedy said that “theatre classes demand a level of bravery and vulnerability not seen in other classrooms, and Mr. Mitchell deftly and compassionately guides his students through the emotional and psychological twists and turns of crafting characters and giving extraordinary performances.”

The bravery and vulnerability found in theatre classrooms prepares students well for the performing arts, Schwartz said during the Q&A portion of the Virtual ITF event. Kailey Mazur, a student from Kenosha, Wisconsin, wanted to know how “someone who has written some of the most popular and iconic musicals [gets] over the fear that your next musical won’t be as good as your last?”

“You don’t,” Schwartz said. “But here’s the thing. I think if you’re gonna be a writer, if you’re gonna be an actress like Megan … any of us in this business, you just have to ignore fear. Because it’s scary. Whatever part of the business you’re in, you’re putting yourself out there. You know, you’re painting a great, big bullseye on yourself. And you just have to know that that’s part of it.

“I have a little sign on my wall that somebody gave me, and it says: ‘Three simple ways to avoid criticism: Say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’ So, when I get scared, or when I get beat up by criticism, which I often do, I look at that sign. And that reminds me of the alternative.”

When the three-time Oscar winner and four-time Grammy winner was in high school, Schwartz was inducted into Thespian Troupe 276 at Mineola High School on Long Island, where, he said, “the happiest time was doing the shows with the Thespian troupe. I got to direct one; I got to find out what a terrible actor I am. But I also got to realize that this was what I really wanted to do with my life.”

Schwartz created this award to honor the theatre teachers who make those experiences possible. “What they’re teaching … are values that we are so desperately in need of right now: collaboration and working with others, self-discipline, joy, and to me most importantly, empathy — being able to see from somebody else’s point of view,” he said.

Meanwhile, they quietly and tirelessly do whatever it takes to provide those lessons. “They buy props, they buy costumes, they work ridiculously long hours,” said Schwartz.“They’re giving counseling to at-risk kids, they’re giving a sense of self-worth, and really, really changing lives. I can’t think of any group of people that I feel better about being able to acknowledge.”

Learn more about the International Thespian Festival online.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Discover new voices

    Discover new voices

    Preview the 2020 Next Generation Works scripts

    Jun 25, 2020

    Your Voice Is Your Power

    Your Voice Is Your Power

    Exploring racism and racial equity in entertainment

    Jun 24, 2020

    2020 Thespians: It’s Your Time

    2020 Thespians: It’s Your Time

    Recapping the Virtual ITF opening ceremony

    Jun 23, 2020