Stars Reflect on Arts Education Programs That Shaped Their Success

Tony Awards   Stars Reflect on Arts Education Programs That Shaped Their Success With the inaugural Excellence in Theatre Education Award presented at the 2015 Tony Awards, theatre education felt the well-deserved spotlight. Now, Skylar Astin, Eva Noblezada and more highlight programs everyone should know about.
Corey Mitchell
Corey Mitchell Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Corey Mitchell has a Tony honor unlike any other.

No, it’s not a medallion, as was the prize in the early days of the awards—such as the ones Ethel Merman and Mary Martin received.

Neither is it the modern Tony trophy with the medallion on top, which is how the award was redesigned in 1967. It’s not what Idina Menzel, Julie Taymor and dozens of others have taken home for the past 48 years.

In fact Mitchell’s award, designed by Tony-winning Broadway costume designer and American Theatre Wing Chairman William Ivey Long, is the only Tony honor to feature a silver apple in place of the Tony medallion—as in “an apple for the teacher.”

Last year, Corey Mitchell of Northwest School of the Arts (NWSA) in Charlotte, N.C., received the new Excellence in Theatre Education Award, presented by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). A new winner for 2016 will be acknowledged onstage June 12.

For many, the Tony Awards’ decision to begin honoring theatre educators was a no-brainer; world-class artists are not born out of thin air. Countless classroom teachers, after-school educators, teaching artists and others all over the country work every day at training the next generation of Broadway’s greatest talents, both on and off the stage. They can also inspire a lifelong love of theatre in those students that may not choose theatrical careers for themselves, but who go on to be enriched by the theatre they attend.

The Tonys and CMU conceived the Education Award to further an ongoing national conversation about the importance of arts education. In that spirit, Playbill took a look at some of the nation’s best theatrical educators and programs to illuminate why theatre education is so important, and to celebrate the ever-increasing opportunities the theatrically-minded kids of today have to flex and develop their artistic muscles, whether or not they end up working on Broadway.

Eva Noblezada as &#39;Kim&#39; and Chris Peluso as &#39;Chris&#39; in the West End production of <i>Miss Saigon</i>
Eva Noblezada as 'Kim' and Chris Peluso as 'Chris' in the West End production of Miss Saigon Johan Persson and Matt Crockett

Mitchell himself saw the results of his labors in a big way recently, when his student, Eva Noblezada, was chosen to cross the pond and star in the London revival of Miss Saigon; she was cast in the production during her senior year at NWSA.

When speaking of her time under Mitchell’s tutelage, Noblezada gushes. “He deserved the Tony [honor],” a view obviously shared by both the Tony Awards, CMU and the many students and colleagues who submitted Mitchell for the award. Mitchell encouraged Noblezada to participate in North Carolina’s Blumey Awards, hosted by Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte, in 2013. There, she won the Best Actress award and went on to compete in the national version of the program. The National High School Musical Theatre Awards, known more casually as The Jimmys, are presented each spring by The Broadway League in New York. Noblezada did her big song from Mitchell’s production of Footloose as well as one from Ghost. If she was disappointed at finishing second, she was mollified by the interest she received from legendary casting director Tara Rubin, who knew that Cameron Mackintosh was planning a Miss Saigon revival for London. Eva, Rubin reasoned, might be his Kim, the doomed Vietnamese girl who loves an American soldier but is separated from him during the fall of Saigon.

Noblezada did Rubin (and Mitchell) proud by not only getting the part but also receiving raves. Charles Spencer of The Telegraph stated that “There were moments when she moved me to tears.” Influential pre-college teachers often become only the first stage in their students’ journey to success, but in Noblezada’s case, Mitchell nearly handed her directly over to the West End.

Skylar Astin, Tim McDonald and iTheatrics
Actor Skylar Astin has done pretty remarkably, too. A conference call reconnects Astin, who recently appeared as Tony in Carnegie Hall’s concert presentation of West Side Story, with Timothy Allen McDonald, the founder and CEO of iTheatrics, an organization that brings quality musical theatre to young people everywhere by adapting musicals for younger performers.

“Skylar, it was clear from your first audition that you had the qualities needed for a successful career: talent, intellect and personality,” comments McDonald.

Skylar Astin (center) on a panel discussion at the 2016 Junior Theater Festival being interviewed by Tim McDonald
Skylar Astin (center) on a panel discussion at the 2016 Junior Theater Festival being interviewed by Tim McDonald Marcus Woollen

“You didn’t think that when I walked through the door,” replies Astin with a chuckle.

“Well,” McDonald says in a no-one-would-blame-me voice, “you came in wearing a basketball uniform. I was surprised to see you accompany yourself on the piano,” McDonald remembers. “I cast you as Jesus [in Godspell] because I saw the talent, but I’d later learn that you were a really smart pre-teen. We could talk about Jesus’ emotional journey and then draw on our discussions to add nuance to your performance.”

“I was a humble sponge,” Astin says sincerely. “I graciously accepted your direction and any challenge.”

“A big one came when the original production of Les Misérables was closing,” responds McDonald. “Cameron Mackintosh asked me to do a 20-minute version with high-schoolers. Hundreds auditioned.”

“I thought I had a big-shot falsetto and could handle Valjean’s ‘Bring Him Home,’” Astin recalls. “My blissful ignorance led to your saying ‘Why don’t you try Javert?’ I sang ‘Stars’ and surprised myself—and had the most fun I’d had since my bar-mitzvah.”

Stories like this highlight one of the most important abilities of the greatest of theatrical educators and mentors, the ability to see raw talent that others might miss when it’s hidden beneath the surface. As Astin describes here, sometimes even the student may be surprised at the potential their teachers see in them.

EdTA and The International Thespian Society
Meanwhile, Sarah Davenport—who landed the role of Ivy Brown in the ABC Family Series Stitchers just a few months after moving to Los Angeles—says “I owe so much to Staples.”
She isn’t referring to the office supply franchise, but to Kimberly Staples, theatre director at Georgia’s Buford High School for the past 16 years. They catch up on a conference call, too.

Says Staples, “I still remember how wonderful you were as Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Lorraine in All Shook Up and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.” Few professional actors working today can boast such a diverse resume—one of the many wonderful opportunities that educational theatre can provide its students while they’re still discovering their strengths as performers.

“More important was your telling me to join the International Thespian Society,” says Davenport, referring to the student organization of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) that recognizes, rewards and encourages theatre-centric kids. The Thespian Society has done a lot to identify students that are serious about making a life in the arts. They offer workshops and student leadership opportunities at the yearly International Thespian Festival, but perhaps most important, the Thespian Society connects students with universities and colleges that offer degrees in the arts, as well as scholarships.

Sarah Davenport in All Shook Up at Buford High School
Sarah Davenport in All Shook Up at Buford High School

“Going [to the International Thespian Festival] got me into the right college program: University of Cincinnati College—Conservatory of Music,” shares Davenport. “That helped me beyond words.”

Bookwriter Hunter Bell, a Tony-nominee for [title of show], wishes he could talk to Linda Wise—“my amazing drama teacher at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia. But she passed away in 2006.”

Wise urged Bell to join the International Thespian Society, too. “The real takeaway,” he says, “was connecting with like-minded theatre lovers who had my same passion. Where I am today professionally is in large part thanks to my high school theatre program.”

Now Bell serves on the board for EdTA which operates the Thespian Society. “It’s an awesome full-circle moment for me,” he says.

EdTA is working towards big goals, according to executive director Julie Cohen Theobald. “Our vision is that every student has access to theatre education in school—not just those who become professional artists.” She’s interested in fostering “the life skills it teaches everyone—collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, public speaking and grit. Our association is advocating for—and directly starting up—theatre programs in schools to close the gap.”
Theobald points out a fact that every theatre artist knows: The value of theatre and theatre education extends way beyond the confines of the theatre itself, and producing Broadway stars is far from the only worthy result of a good arts education program. Making theatre involves a full range of critical thinking skills. It’s also, by necessity, an exercise in teamwork and collaboration.

Of course, exposing kids to live theatre from a young age can also awaken a lifelong lover of the art form, and as all theatre fans know, the benefits of this possibility are endless.

Widening Access
But there is still work to do and growth to be had in the availability of theatre education. “Right now,” Theobald says, “only 28 percent of high schools in high poverty areas offer theatre.” She wants to greatly increase that percentage.

Theobald has help in her mission from a young woman who was not too long ago a theatre student herself. Shauni Ruetz grew up taking dance and acting classes in her small hometown near Rochester, New York. In 2011 her high school performance as the Witch in Into the Woods sent her to The Jimmy Awards, and she walked away the top female winner with a $10,000 scholarship.

After graduating the University of Northern Colorado, Ruetz moved to New York City and was invited to give an Introduction to Show Business workshop for middle school-aged kids in the Bronx. “[These kids] have no access to the arts,” says Ruetz. “Some live in shelters and low-income housing.”

Knowing the importance that arts training has had in her own life, Ruetz saw the need for a more long-term offering for these kids. “Now I’m officially starting an arts program here in the Bronx, teaching voice, piano and dance as well as putting on mini-musicals.”

And so the availability and impacts of quality theatre education grow ever wider. The student has become the teacher, which might just be the greatest gift of all.


Peter Filichia’s work can be seen regularly at Masterworks Broadway, and Music Theatre International. His most recent book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-to-Be-Forgotten 1963–1964 Season, is available from St. Martin’s Press.

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